WASHINGTON – Maryland earlier this month became the 10th state to create a paid family and medical leave program for workers, but Congress appears no nearer to enacting similar legislation.
The closest federal lawmakers came to overhauling family and medical leave policy came last fall, when Democrats sought improvements as part of the Biden administration’s $1.75 trillion social safety net package, also known as the Build Back Better Act. But that legislation stalled, in part because of the inclusion of proposed family and medical leave changes.
Proponents of family and medical leave reforms, including Maryland’s two Democratic senators, are frustrated with the stalemate.
“For far too long, our nation’s lack of reliable family and medical leave has held our economy back and limited our workforce’s potential,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen told Capital News Service. “Hard-working Americans deserve to take leave when they are sick or caring for a loved one without worrying about losing their job or making ends meet.”
Van Hollen added that he was glad to see that the Maryland General Assembly had passed its own Family and Medical Leave Act, and that assorted COVID-19 relief packages had been passed by Congress during the pandemic to temporarily extend family and sick leave, but American families needed a more permanent solution.
His colleague, Sen. Ben Cardin, agreed.
“The U.S. is the only OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) country without a paid leave program,” Cardin said. “Clearly, this is not the leadership example we should be setting as a nation.”
Maryland’s family and medical leave legislation, called the Time to Care Act of 2022, passed April 9 by a supermajority vote in the General Assembly following Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto the previous day.
Maryland now joins a patchwork of states where leave benefits vary, depending on an employee’s location, choice of profession and the size of the company an employee works for.
The limited leave policies in the United States stand in contrast to other nations that have become renowned for their more generous benefits, including paid extended leave and maternity leaves.
Bulgaria leads the world by offering 58.6 weeks of minimum paid maternity leave with a guarantee of job security, according to World Population Review.
By contrast, the United States – under the provisions of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 – currently offers 12 work weeks of leave in a 12-month period to care for a new child, care for a seriously ill family member, or recover from a serious illness.
Under the act, “Employees are eligible for leave if they have worked for their employer at least 12 months, at least 1,250 hours over the past 12 months, and work at a location where the company employs 50 or more employees within 75 miles,” according to the Department of Labor.
That law has shortcomings, leave advocates say.
“The Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, remains the only federal law that offers protection for private sector employees who need time away from work to manage their own health or care for a loved one,” said Gayle Goldin, senior advisor to the Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau.
“While monumental, the FMLA only guarantees some workers unpaid time away from work,” she said. “Even when eligible for FMLA, many workers cannot afford to take unpaid leave.”
But expanding family and medical leave appears to be a reach with Democrats holding a bare majority in the Senate and at least one of their own party opposed to making those benefits part of a broader social safety net bill.
“I don’t think it belongs in the bill,” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, said on CNN in November, referring to the leave provisions in last fall’s Build Back Better Act. “That’s a piece of legislation that really is needed from the standpoint of if we do it and do it right.”
Manchin said he believed the policy could garner bipartisan support if it was done as a stand-alone bill.
“Let’s get it done in regular order through the process. It’ll last. It’ll be forever,” Manchin said.
In the meantime, the absence of more comprehensive and uniform family and medical leave policies pose a challenge for many families.
Vicky Prosser, 33, of Triangle, Virginia, was a high school Spanish teacher with the Prince William County Public Schools at the time of her second pregnancy. Her husband is in the military and he is changing assignments, requiring them to move.
Once the couple moves, Prosser said, “the likelihood of me being at a job for at least 12 months before I have a baby is just not high,” following the birth of her second child.
“And so it’s just really frustrating that because I moved with my husband for his military service, I don’t get the same benefits for my medical leave after delivering a baby as someone else would,” she said. “So I would love to see that updated to have allowances for military spouses who are having babies.”
Prosser noted that when she became a Spanish teacher with the Prince William County School system and was pregnant with her second child, she had not yet been an employee for 12-months, and did not qualify for family and medical leave act benefits.
“So, I had to take unpaid leave, and was not guaranteed a job at the end of my maternity leave…the whole thing was just incredibly frustrating,” she said.
Rachel Williams, 35, of Glen Burnie, Maryland, and an employee of the Millipor Sigma pharmaceutical company, said she had a much easier experience with family and medical leave than Prosser, although it was still not without its issues.
“My company really streamlined the process,” she said, regarding the time off for her pregnancy. “The initial paperwork, basically, my provider filled it out, and submitted it several months in advance. The fact that I got 100% paid for 14 weeks was pretty incredible.”
Williams also noted that she previously had worked for a much smaller company, which was following federal guidelines from 2010 and only provided eight weeks of unpaid maternity leave.
For Katie Garber, a mother of two from Takoma Park, Maryland, who is a social worker in private practice specializing in care for older adults, her experience was more mixed.
Garber, who was working for a very small non-profit that didn’t have the required number of employees for federal family and medical leave benefits, said she wound up essentially bargaining for her time off to have her first daughter.
“They didn’t really have to give it to me,” she said. “But I was a valued employee, it was a small office, and my executive director at the time really wanted to set the precedent that they wanted to be family-friendly. So I took the 16 weeks.”
Garber added that she felt lucky that her job had been held for her while she was on leave. Under a different director managing her, it might have been a different story, she said.
“At the time, there was no compensation at all,” Garber said. “So, my husband and I went from a two-earner household, you know, basically two adults with two incomes, to three people – two adults and one child income – for several months, which was definitely challenging.”
“I was so lucky to get the leave the way I did,” she said. “And I don’t feel that that’s how, especially a federal regulation, should be.”
In the case of LGBTQ+ individuals, requests to employers for family and medical leave in states that lack explicit protections can lead to employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
“Some fear the stigma they could face if they reveal the need to take time off for HIV-related care or transgender-specific treatment,” according to the Human Rights Campaign website. “Too many others, especially transgender people of color and those who are low-income, may face other forms of anti-LGBTQ discrimination, housing instability, and violence.”
There are often additional obstacles with employers to overcome in the case of LGBTQ+ workers.
“The challenges faced by workers who request time off from work for medically necessary transition-related health care are significant and painful, ranging from health insurance plans that don’t cover comprehensive trans health care and worries about being outed in the workplace, to flat out harassment,” said Liam Miranda, senior research manager for the Human Rights Campaign.
The Biden administration still is advocating for more comprehensive leave coverage.
“This administration understands the importance of paid family and medical leave to protect workers, especially those from historically marginalized communities,” Women’s Bureau director Wendy Chun-Hoon said. “Studies show that access to paid leave improves child health and well-being, maternal health, families’ economic security, worker retention, labor force participation, and worker productivity and morale.”
The House last fall approved expanding leave benefits in the doomed Build Back Better Act. But Manchin’s objections and GOP opposition in the Senate remain.
Separate from the Build Back Better Act, legislation to expand leave benefits has been introduced by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Connecticut, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York. But neither bill has seen any movement.
“In Washington, there is never a shortage of competing priorities, so the more visible and vocal in their support that members of the public can be, the better,” Cardin said. “We need everyone to amplify their calls for reform and to communicate this as a priority.”