New Labor Department Initiative Would Expand Paid Family, Medical Leave Across Nation

It’s been more than 15 years since the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) guaranteed American workers the ability to take time off for a newborn, or serious family medical emergency. The drawback, however, to leave under FMLA always has been that such time off mostly has been unpaid, leaving workers having to figure out how to pay their bills.

With a $50 million State Paid Leave Fund, the Obama administration is now proposing a new program that would expand the ability of Americans, on a state-by-state basis, to be paid during their family and medical leave.

The planned State Paid Leave Fund is part of President Obama’s fiscal year 2011 budget request for the Department of Labor. It would provide grants to assist states to establish paid leave programs, according to an administration budget document on the initiative.

Currently, California, Washington, and New Jersey offer paid leave programs, which are called family leave insurance, the document notes. Typically, the programs offer up to six weeks of benefits to workers who must take time off to care for a seriously ill child, spouse, or parent, or bond with a newborn or recently adopted child. In doing so, the programs may enhance job retention for many workers or help workers stay on their career paths, the document adds.

“Millions of workers risk losing pay and or their jobs when they are sick or their children are sick,” the document says. “In spite of the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) which recommends that if individuals have a fever and are sick or their children are sick, they should not go to work, many workers have no choice but to go to work. This presents a major public health concern and some studies suggest that it costs U.S. businesses billions of dollars annually.

“In addition, at a time when a one-income family is a luxury few can afford, changes in family circumstances — whether it’s the birth of a new child or the serious illness of an older relative — put greater stress on the economic security of families than ever before. Today, 64 [percent] of mothers of young children work outside the home,” the document adds.

Under the new initiative, grants would assist other states in planning and start-up activities relating to paid leave programs. The Labor Department would develop the grant program based on information available from established family leave insurance programs, the budget document says.

“I want to applaud the president for allocating $50 million in the 2011 budget for a competitive grants program to help states start up paid family leave programs,” says Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “I also call on Congress to pass HR 2339, the FIRST (Family Income to Respond to Significant Transitions) Act, which I introduced last year. It authorizes $1.5 billion in grants to states to implement and improve state paid family leave programs. The grants also can be used for start-up activities to promote state programs, wage replacement, and incentives to small businesses to provide job protection to employees who require time away from work to meet family needs.

“While we ultimately need a national paid leave program, the State Paid Leave Fund and the FIRST Act would be good first steps and will make it much easier for workers who need time off for the birth of a child or to take care of a sick loved one,” Woolsey adds.

The publisher of the news site On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.

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