As the nation continues to grapple with the pandemic, Congress is looking to act on the growing national conversation around paid and family medical leave. Here's what you need to know.

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The pandemic has put many glaring, painful realities for U.S. families under the spotlight. One that's becoming an even hotter topic of conversation right now: paid family and medical leave. It seems many Americans have reached their boiling point over the fact that the U.S. is the only industrialized country to not offer paid leave.

An image of a wallet on a colorful background.
Credit: Getty Images. Art: Jillian Sellers.

Here's what you need to know about the issue and recent developments that could change the game.

What Paid Family Leave Options Exist in the U.S.

Currently, there are a few, limited ways you might be able to access paid family leave:

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993: This provides eligible workers with federal entitlement to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for particular caregiving needs. To qualify, the company you work for needs to employs at least 50 people within a 75-mile radius, and you need to have worked for the company a minimum of 12 months and 1,250 hours.

In other words, if you work for a startup, remote worker business, or small business, you likely won't get coverage under FLMA. And time off for pregnancy-related complications can be counted against the 12 weeks of FMLA. 

Through an employer: If you work full-time, you might also have access to paid family leave if it's a benefit offered by your employer.

Through a government job: Thanks to the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act, which went into effect on October 1, 2020, an estimated 2 million federal employees now have access to 12 weeks of paid parental leave.

Through a state program: If you live in California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New York, Washington state, the District of Columbia, and Massachusetts, you have access to paid family and medical leave through your state or district's program.

Aside from those options, there is no federal law that requires all employers to provide any kind of paid leave.

In fact, only 20 percent of private sector workers had access to paid family leave in 2020 to care for a new child or a family member, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Labor.

And low-wage workers are less likely to have access to different forms of paid leave. Only 8 percent of workers in the bottom wage quartile—who on average earn less than $14 an hour—had access to paid family leave in 2020. And Black and Hispanic workers are less likely than white, non-Hispanic workers to have access to paid family and medical leave.

Why Paid Family Leave Is More Important Than Ever

The pandemic has made it clear that piecemeal options aren't cutting it. Last spring, Congress passed a temporary emergency paid leave in response to the pandemic that was limited to uses related to COVID-19, such as 80 hours of emergency paid sick leave or 12 weeks of emergency leave to care for a child whose school or place of care closed. But that law expired on December 31, 2020 and was replaced with a voluntary tax credit.

Proponents of a comprehensive paid family and medical leave policy, like the Center for American Progress, state that it would guarantee leave for workers to not only care for a new child but recover from a serious health condition, care for a seriously ill family member, or address needs arising from a family member's military service deployment.

And for parents and caregivers in particular, paid family leave has been shown to:

What's Happening to Move the Ball Forward

With a new Congress and administration looking to take on ambitious, progressive legislation, the national conversation around paid family leave is reaching a fever pitch. Businesses across the U.S., including Etsy, Honest, Levi Strauss & Co., Salesforce, Pinterest, and a plethora of top names, recently submitted an open letter urging Congress to establish permanent paid family and medical leave through the Biden-Harris administration's upcoming economic recovery package.

The letter points out that "more than 8 in 10 Americans support creating a national paid leave policy and a recent report found that more than 75 percent of businesses agree that a national paid leave policy would help them be better positioned to weather future public health emergencies and economic crises."

Lawmakers wouldn't be starting from scratch. There's already a congressional proposal, the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, which has used state evidence to develop a comprehensive paid family and medical leave program that will meet the needs of American workers and families.

Given the groundswell of bipartisan support for a policy like this and numerous positive downstream effects for U.S. families, it's well past time for government to act.