February 5th marked the 25th anniversary of the passage of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This landmark law removed some of the barriers facing working Americans when illness, injury, or family caregiving duties need to be given priority. But it did not ensure access to paid leave, creating an inequitable system where many low-wage workers have to grapple with financial hardship or make unthinkable choices like returning to work just days after giving birth.
The US Department of Labor has run extensive studies of leave-taking behavior in connection with FMLA, and their data are clear: there are stark disparities in access to paid leave. Almost two thirds of people earning more than the median income received full pay during their leaves, compared to about a third of those earning less than median income. Of those receiving no pay or partial pay, the vast majority limited spending during their leave, and many drew on savings. But some were forced make decisions likely to undermine their financial security. More than a third put off paying bills and about 30% borrowed money. Fifteen percent signed up for public assistance. They overwhelmingly reported that making ends meet was difficult.
Low-wage workers and their children stand to benefit most from access to paid leave. Unmet need for leave is substantially higher for those with children, people of color and people with low incomes. The recent feasibility study on paid leave in Vermont projected that “workers in families with incomes near the poverty threshold would increase their number of paid leaves by 38 percent compared with 9 percent for higher income families.”
Welcoming a new child to the family or supporting a loved one through a serious illness are both watershed moments that can set families on a path toward a healthy, secure future or turn them toward damaging hardship. The impacts of living your childhood in poverty are devastating to both children and our communities.
The legislature is considering two proposals that will improve families’ economic security, and they are inexplicably being pitted against each other. Both a statewide paid family and medical leave insurance program and increasing the minimum wage are important. Passing them together as an economic support package for working families (as our neighbors in New York did) makes all kinds of sense. Coordinating their implementation will ensure that the nominal cost of PFML premiums, paid through a payroll deduction, is more than offset with increased wages. Concerns about regressivity expressed by Senate Pro Tem Tim Ashe are overblown and can be addressed by improvements to the legislation, but only if he engages in the process.
Similarly, some legislators are hesitant to support a higher minimum wage because the increase might leave some workers worse off after their eligibility for benefits like child care subsidy and health care change. But the so called “benefits cliff” exists now, and the solutions are known. There just aren’t enough legislators fighting for them.
Governor Scott’s veto threat looms over all these conversations, despite research that points to positive outcomes when wages increase and working families are supported, and widespread support for the policies. We agree with Governor Scott; Vermont can do better in attracting and retaining young families. But a splashy marketing campaign is not the answer. We must realign our priorities as a state, with family economic security as the foundation for healthy communities, thriving kids, and a sustainable economy. That means raising the floor for low-wage workers so that working full time pays the bills. And it means enacting family leave to ensure that family caregivers (overwhelmingly women) can achieve pay equity, and kids get a strong, healthy start. It’s time for bold action.