An Update on Paid Sick Leave and Family Leave in 2016

In recent years, we’ve seen progress in the battle for paid leave. However, such progress has occurred almost exclusively at the state and local government levels, and almost all of the advances have been on the sick leave front.  The family leave front, by contrast, lags significantly behind.  OnLabor examined the state of sick leave (here) and family leave (here) in 2014.  This post will serve as an update, examining where we are now, how that compares to other developed countries, and why it matters.

Sick Leave

San Francisco was the first locality to pass a law guaranteeing workers the ability to earn paid sick days.  Its 2006 Paid Sick Leave Ordinance required employers to give paid sick leave to all employees (part-time and temporary included) working in San Francisco.  Under the ordinance, employees began accruing leave after 90 days of employment at the rate of one hour of leave for every 30 hours worked, subject to a 5- or 9-day cap, depending on the employer’s size.  The District of Columbia followed suit with similar legislation in 2008 (and expanded access to more employees in 2014).

In 2011, Connecticut became the first state to pass statewide legislation guaranteeing workers access to paid sick days (1 hour for every 40 hours worked; 40-hour carryover).  The city of Seattle followed suit the same year (at rates of 1:40 or 1:30 depending on the employer’s tier).

In 2013, Portland (1:30; cappable at 40 hrs/yr), New York City (5 days/yr), and Jersey City (1:30; cappable at 40; later expanded to more employers) numbered among the cities to adopt legislation, followed closely in early 2014 by Eugene (later repealed when Oregon passed statewide legislation), San Diego, several cities in New Jersey, and the state of California (1:30, cappable at 24).  Before the end of 2014, a couple more New Jersey cities and the commonwealth of Massachusetts also joined the ranks of jurisdictions mandating leave (beginning the first day of work; 1:30 rate/40 hr cap).

Finally, 2015 saw measures passed in Tacoma (1:40 up to 24 hrs/yr), Oakland (1:30 cappable at 40 hrs/yr for small employers and 72 hrs/yr for all others), Philadelphia (1:40 capped at 40), Montgomery County (1:30 cappable at 56), Pittsburgh (1:35 capped at 40), and the state of Oregon.

Family Leave:

The above measures mark progress.  However, these laws are of limited scope, reaching sick leave but neglecting its just-as-necessary cousin, family leave.  The distinction isn’t always a clear one, especially since the two categories merge to form the subject of the FMLA, which guarantees unpaid leave.  But generally, sick leave can only be used to address illness-related medical needs of the employee or his parent/spouse/child and, sometimes, by an employee affected by domestic violence or sexual assault; whereas family leave (not covered) more broadly reaches time needed to accommodate typical family events, such as the birth/adoption of a new child or the death of a parent.

One recent encouraging exception to this rule is the new policy signed by Mayor De Blasio giving 6 weeks of paid parental leave (12 when combined with existing leave/accrued sick days) to about 20,000 city employees in NYC (men and women alike) after the birth/adoption of a new child.  Pittsburgh, Austin, and soon-to-be Portland also provide some form of paid family leave, but, again, only for employees of the city.

At the state level, California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island are the only 3 with paid family leave programs.  Administered through the disability system, California’s program provides up to 6 weeks of paid family leave at 55% of employees’ weekly earnings up to $1,075/week.  New Jersey provides up to 6 weeks at 66% of wages up to $524/week.  And Rhode Island’s policy contemplates paid leave up to $752/week, maxing out at 4 weeks for births, adoptions, or family members’ medical conditions, but providing up to a whopping 30 weeks of paid leave if taken to care for the employee’s own disability.

Thus, while clearly a step in the right direction, the advances we’ve seen nonetheless leave a marked gap for at least three reasons:

  1. the majority of jurisdictions have not yet guaranteed access to paid sick leave;
  2. the jurisdictions that have generally limit coverage to a mere 3 or 5 days per year; and
  3. almost all jurisdictions have neglected to mandate paid family leave, leaving unmet the broader family-related needs of millions of well-intentioned employees trying to balance their careers with the incidents of family life.

To put the phenomena into numbers:

  • Over 43 million workers nationwide cannot earn paid leave.
  • Only 11-12 percent of private sector workers are covered by formal paid family leave through their employers (and even fewer in the public sector).
  • Access to paid medical and family leave is particularly low (read: non-existent) for less educated and low-wage workers.
  • As womens’ participation in the workforce has increased, the number of dual-earning households has skyrocketed: current statistics show that women are breadwinners/co-breadwinners in 2/3 of families with children, and 63% of children live in a family where both parents work.
  • In households with single parents, the difficulty of balancing work/life. demands intensifies. And in 2013, 65% of female single parents had a job.
  • Elderly caregiving is on the rise in American families with 16% of the population age 15 or older providing unpaid eldercare for family members.
  • Many of these caregivers, nearly 7 million, are members of the “sandwich generation,” meaning they provide care for both their children and elderly family members.

The bottom line is that Americans increasingly need the flexibility that paid leave provides.  Furthermore, paid leave doesn’t just benefit employees. Offering paid leave helps companies recruit and retain talent and increases the likelihood that female employees will remain employed after childbirth instead of leaving permanently (saving companies recruitment/training costs).  And although some may worry that companies would suffer an attendant loss in profitability due to interruptions in the workplace, credible evidence suggests they would not – a survey of 253 employers (varying in size) required to provide paid leave by California’s initiative found that over 90% reported either no effect or a positive effect on profitability, turnover, and morale.

Yet still, with respect to both paid sick leave and paid maternity/family leave, the U.S. stands alone as virtually the only country among high-income nations that does not guarantee paid leave for employees.  In fact, when it comes to paid maternity leave, the only other countries in the world that do not have such policies in place are Lesotho, Swaziland, and Papua New Guinea.  The following graphics demonstrate how alarmingly behind the rest of the world the U.S. has truly fallen:

Paid Sick Leave (graphic from the World Policy Analysis Center):


Paid Maternity/Parental Leave (graphics from NPR and Huffington Post):



In light of substantial room to improve, it was encouraging when the Department of Labor announced in September that its Women’s Bureau will award $1.55 million in grants to research potential methods of developing paid family/medical leave programs across the country.  President Obama has also spoken about the need for paid leave on multiple occasions.  He has proposed a $50 million fund to help more states establish paid family leave programs and supported the Healthy Families Act, proposed federal legislation that would grant employees 7 sick days/year.  Unfortunately, it seems like these seeds of hope are only likely to flourish into widespread changes in the event of Congressional action.  Here’s to hoping that either Congress gets its act together and passes legislation that’s supported by the majority of Americans, or that more states and cities decide to improve the lives of employees by picking up the slack themselves.