Paid Medical Leave

Congress isn’t known for its ability to pass laws these days. For better or worse, major policy accomplishments now mostly happen at the state level. One example is paid leave, time off from work with pay for new parents or the seriously ill. Currently, eight U.S. states and the District of Columbia have laws surrounding paid family and medical leave, and 12 U.S. states and the District of Columbia have laws requiring some form of paid sick leave. Several other states have or are considering the issue as their legislative sessions get underway.

The state of Georgia should implement a paid family and medical leave program of its own. Paid leave gives workers the ability to manage critical aspects of health and wellness for themselves and their families without fear of financial ruin. Additionally, with the spread of the new coronavirus around the world, Georgia should guarantee paid medical leave so workers can quarantine themselves without losing their incomes. Georgia can learn from the mistakes of other states and make the program accessible to busy, low-income recipients, without the burden of excessive paperwork and bureaucracy.

Only 14% of U.S. civilian workers have access to paid family leave, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 guarantees job-protected leave, but the time off isn’t paid. Workers living paycheck to paycheck simply cannot afford to take weeks or months off work, even for good reasons.

Athens in particular is a very unequal city, where inequality is driven by wage workers in unstable service sector jobs with low pay, sporadic hours and little job security. Without sick leave, service employees have a strong incentive to show up to work even if they’re ill. If Congress can't even quickly pass a coronavirus response bill that includes paid medical leave, Georgia should take matters into its own hands.

According to a report by the Council of Economic Advisers under the Obama White House, workers who want to take unpaid leave but can’t most often cite too much work, inability to afford it and fear over job loss. Poorer and less educated workers were much more likely to cite their inability to afford the income loss.

Thankfully, state policies have shown how to solve the problem. For example, In 2004, California’s Paid Family Leave Act took effect, which allowed new mothers and fathers to take up to six weeks of paid leave during or after pregnancy. A study published by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth suggests that paid leave reduced the number of children born while increasing the amount of time parents spent with their children.

California isn’t the only state that expanded paid family leave at the state level. In 2009, New Jersey introduced a similar program, using an employee payroll tax to fund six weeks of paid leave through its Family Leave Insurance program.

For those who used it, the FLI was a success. According to a qualitative study by the National Center for Children in Poverty, parents who used the FLI reported feeling more financially secure and more emotionally connected with their newborn. FLI funds largely went to essentials such as rent, food and diapers. In addition, mothers who used FLI breastfed for one month longer on average than women who did not use the program.

However, many low-income New Jersey parents do not take advantage of the FLI’s benefits. In 2014, fewer than one in eight New Jersey parents filed an eligible FLI claim for a newborn child. The most commonly cited culprits were the difficulty of application, the accessibility of program information and confusion with other state and federal programs offering similar benefits. New Jersey’s FLI program might not be perfect, but its mistakes can be constructive in how to better craft policy.

Georgia can improve upon the mistakes of other states’ efforts by simplifying the application process, publicizing easy-to-understand information in layman’s terms about the program and cutting down on cumbersome paperwork. Such a policy would be especially helpful for low-income workers in sectors without sizable benefits or job security. Communities like Athens which are replete with such workers would see the greatest benefit. Not only does Georgia have an opportunity to improve the quality and security of life for parents and sick people, it can do so in a way where it can have the broadest impact.

CLARIFICATION: A previous version of this article said there were 12 U.S. states that have laws surrounding paid leave. In reality, there are 12 states that have laws surrounding paid sick leave. The Red & Black regrets this error.