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Dispatches: How Congress Can Deliver for Working Families
December 10, 2013

When Samantha learned she was pregnant, she hoped for a healthy delivery, a happy baby, and a smooth return to work.

Life did not go according to plan. Samantha had a C-section, and the wound got infected. She took eight weeks of leave from work, much of it unpaid. Samantha went into debt, deferred student loans, and dipped into savings. She was in pain when she returned to work, barely able to walk. Her employer then laid her off, saying they wanted someone who could work late shifts with little notice.

This week a bill will be introduced in the US Congress to establish a national paid family leave insurance program. The bill, known as the FAMILY Act, would help workers manage their own health crises or care for new babies or seriously ill family members – without going broke. Current federal law only guarantees unpaid family leave. Just 12 percent of US workers have paid family leave through employers.

The FAMILYAct would create a fund financed through small worker and employer contributions (0.2 percent of a worker’s wages, or less than $1.50 per week for the average worker). Workers taking leave could get 66 percent of wages for up to 12 weeks.  

I interviewed US parents about family leave for a 2011 report. Parents who had little or no paid leave after childbirth or adoption said they delayed immunizations and health visits for babies, experienced postpartum depression and other health problems, and stopped breastfeeding early. Many went into debt, and some resorted to welfare and bankruptcy.

California and New Jersey have paid family leave programs, and Rhode Island will join their ranks in 2014. The state programs have shown good results. In a 2011 survey on the California program, most employers reported that the program had a positive effect or no noticeable effect on productivity, profitability, turnover, and employee morale. In other countries, such programs are associated with economic growth.

The FAMILY Act will help keep workers like Samantha healthy and employed, bolster business productivity, and spur economic growth. Congress should pass it without delay.