The Emerging Paid Family Leave Gap

(Photo: AP/Eric Risberg)

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at a conference in 2012. His company was one of the first in the tech industry to offer workers access to paid family leave. 

Welcome to The American Prospect’s weekly roundup highlighting the best reporting and latest developments in the labor movement. 

(Compiled by Justin Miller—Edited by Harold Meyerson

More and more Fortune 500 companies and leading localities have implemented mandatory paid parental and family leave policies, which have quickly become a major cause for the left. Still, there are already indications of an emerging geographic and industry-based gap.

While American workers’ access to paid family leave remains abysmally low across the board, it’s far more common in the lucrative tech and finance industries and in the liberal coastal states that mandate such policies. But those who are working blue-collar jobs or in the South are far less likely to have access to paid time off to care for newborns or sick loved ones.

If this emerging gap—between blue states and red states; high-road and low-road employers—is left unaddressed, paid family and parental leave may become yet another policy with stark disparities in its implementation.

As of 2015, only about 12 percent of American workers had access to paid family leave, barely up from 11 percent in 2011, according to an Associated Press report that cites a 2015 Bureau of Labor Statistics survey. Access to paid family leave for tech workers, however, jumped from 23 percent to 30 percent, three times more than the average of all American industries. In high-dollar industries that disproportionately employ professionals, like the tech and finance sectors, access to these benefits has become yet another perk to attract and retain young talent. It’s become something of an industry arms race for the leading Silicon Valley titans—26 weeks off at Etsy; Microsoft, 20 weeks; 16 weeks for Facebook; Google, 12 weeks.

The liberal coastal states of California, New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island, as well as a smattering of a few dozen localities, are the only ones in the country so far to mandate some type of paid family leave. California requires that workers get 55 percent of their pay for up to six weeks through a worker-funded insurance program. Earlier this year, San Francisco passed the country’s most generous paid family leave law, which requires private employers in the city to cover the remaining 45 percent of workers’ leave.  

Elsewhere, things are much bleaker. Roughly 10 percent of workers in the service, manufacturing, farming, and construction industries have access to paid family leave—a percentage that’s remained stagnant over the past five years, according to the AP analysis of BLS survey data. In the East South Central region—Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, and Tennessee—just 7 percent of workers have paid family leave benefits, well below the range of 10 to 15 percent in every other region.

As a new report from the National Partnership for Women & Families finds, access to other worker-friendly policies—including earned paid sick time, unpaid family and medical leave, and protections for pregnant and nursing women in the workplace—are passing in the bluer states of the country. Same goes for minimum wage hikes, which have been implemented in an ever-growing number of liberal cities and states.

So, apart from a drastic reshaping of political control in state legislatures or the resource-intensive passage of ballot measures, how do we address this gap? Many labor advocates assert that a federal paid family leave law is the only way to mandate widespread access. Building on the few state-level policies, last year advocates helped draft and introduce the Family And Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, which would create a federal insurance program that would give workers access to up to 60 workdays or 12 workweeks a year for pregnancy and childbirth, caring for a new child, and dealing with their own serious health issue or that of a family member.

The legislation has become a top priority for Democrats, with 21 senators co-sponsoring it since New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand first introduced it. It has also become a central part of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s domestic policy platform. Still, the likelihood of such an ambitious policy passing in Congress largely hinges on how well Democrats do in 2016—and just how high the legislation is on the Democratic agenda.

In the meantime, paid family leave’s blue-state, high-dollar-industry momentum will likely widen its current access gap. 


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