Twenty years ago, the Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, was signed into law. The FMLA granted certain workers new and important rights, including the ability to take up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave after a birth or adoption, but it fell short in at least two important respects. First, the leave guaranteed under the law is unpaid, making it difficult for many covered workers to take advantage of their new rights. Second, the FMLA does not cover about 40 percent of the American workforce. These workers don’t meet the law’s eligibility criteria, the most important of which are requirements that the worker have been on the job for at least 1,250 hours in the year preceding the leave and that the worker’s employer have at least 50 employees. Moreover, since employers mostly control access to time off and there are no federal laws that set minimum standards, time off has been seen as a perk for higher-paid employees. Thus, even within the same firm, some workers may have more access to time off, or paid time off, than others.
Without downplaying the historical significance of the FMLA’s guarantee of job-protected leave for a majority of U.S. workers, this review of Census Bureau data from the first two decades of the FMLA suggests that the law had a limited impact on the frequency of parental leave and no impact on the likelihood that parental leave is paid.
The need for paid family leave
The ability to access paid parental leave is important to family economic well-being. Losing a day’s pay is a real hardship for many families. If
a low-wage worker making $10 an hour has a family of two children and misses more than three days of work without paid leave, the family would fall below the poverty line due to lost wages. Moreover, workers with less education—who are also more likely to be in low-paying jobs—suffer disproportionately when they are forced to choose between lost wages or their caregiving responsibilities. This isn’t good for American families or the economy.
Paid parental leave has made some progress at the state level, and proposals for federal legislation are also on the table. Three states now guarantee paid family leave, including paid parental leave. Family leave insurance was implemented in California in 2004 and in New Jersey in 2009, and a bill to implement it was signed into law in Rhode Island in July 2013. The results in California have been promising. One study found that from 1999 to 2010, the California paid leave program doubled the overall use of maternity leave from three to six weeks, espe- cially among the most economically vulnerable groups, and increased the number of hours that working mothers of 1- to 3-year-olds worked each week. Another survey of California employers and employees conducted in 2009 and 2010 found that the vast majority of businesses, while initially fearful of the costs of paid fam- ily leave, had experienced little to no impact on their operations. Moreover, most businesses reported that the legislation had either a “positive effect” or “no notice- able effect” on worker productivity, morale, and performance.
For each year from 1994 through 2012, Figure 1 displays the share of workers ages 16 to 44 who took parental leave at some point during the year. Three features of the figure stand out. First, the share of workers that take parental leave in any given year is very low: about 0.3 percent of workers per year, averaged over the two decades since the FMLA was passed. This low rate holds even though we have excluded workers age 45 and older who are statistically much less likely to have a new child.
Second, women are much more likely than men to take time off from work for parental leave. On average, about 0.7 percent of 16- to 44-year-old women took parental leave per year, compared to well below 0.1 percent for men. In the last five years of available data, the ratio of women to men taking parental leave was 9-to-1.
Third, the share of women taking leave shows no obvious trend over time. The FMLA does not appear to have triggered a long-term expansion in the use of parental leave among women in the age range that is most likely to take advantage of the law’s protections. For men, the data do show a slow rise over time in the rate of parental leave, but the increase is from near zero in 1994 to a level that was still little different from zero by 2012.17 Given the small share of men taking parental leave—and the correspondingly small sample size in the CPS data we analyze here—the rest of our discussion of the use of parental leave will analyze only the experience of women.
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