As 2022 Ends, We've Seen What the Federal Government Can Do – Yet the Vast Majority of U.S. Workers and Families Are Still Waiting for Paid Leave

What's Ahead for Paid Leave in 2023?
Blog Post
Photo by Liv Bruce on Unsplash
Dec. 16, 2022

Over the past two years, we saw federal government initiatives that will make a real difference for people: Historic infrastructure legislation decades in the making; long-overdue health, climate and tax reforms; the protection of marriage equality; and the confirmation of the first Black woman Supreme Court justice, and more.

Yet investments in the care economy, including the creation of a national paid family and medical leave program, are unacceptably unfinished business. As 2022 comes to a close, the United States still remains the only high-wealth country that fails to guarantee private-sector workers any form of paid leave. Research shows time and again favorable outcomes for workers, businesses and the economy when workers do have access to paid leave.

Image of CNBC headline

We should celebrate historic progress on paid leave and evidence of successand keep pushing for more. In 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the first national paid leave program as part of the Build Back Better Act, modeled on successful state programs. In 2022, two additional states – Delaware and Maryland – passed paid leave, bringing the nation's total to 12 state programs, including the District of Columbia's. California and the District of Columbia expanded their paid family and medical leave programs. And advocates and lawmakers celebrated 20 years since the adoption of the country’s first paid leave program in California, celebrating successes and taking stock of lessons learned that other states have applied.

As we turn the page on 2022, let’s take stock of where workers are now, and what’s ahead to watch, do and celebrate in 2023. This is a long post, so to help readers jump to the most relevant places:

  • Part One: Readout on workers' current paid family leave access in 2022 – and the enormous disparities that persist, per Bureau of Labor Statistics data – and state paid leave programs
  • Part Two: Five things to watch in 2023:
    • Federal policy opportunities as the FMLA turns 30
    • State policy progress and implementation
    • Worker organizing and business engagement
    • Narrative and culture change
    • Political accountability and civic engagement

Part One: In 2022, Despite Gains for Some, Access to Paid Family Leave Remains Elusive for Tens of Millions of People

Employer Policies

According to the most recent March 2022 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), just 24 percent of private-sector workers have paid family leave at their jobs through employer-provided benefits. It’s significant to see that access has more than doubled over the past decade – from 11 percent in 2012 to 24 percent in 2022. But that leaves nearly 92 million of the country’s 121 million private sector workers with no paid leave through their jobs.

Huge gaps by industry, occupation and business size exist. Workers in professional and management industries are four times more likely than workers in leisure, hospitality and food services jobs to have paid family leave (39 percent vs. 10 percent) and access has increased far more for professional workers than for service workers over the past decade.

Disparities between higher- and lower-wage workers are huge. Paid family leave access for the highest wage workers has jumped 27 percentage points in the past decade, whereas the lowest wage workers saw their access inch up by just 3 percentage points. Now, the highest wage workers (earning around $53 per hour or more, in March 2022) are nearly 8 times more likely to have paid family leave than the lowest wage workers (earning $13 or less). Still, not even half of the highest-paid workers have dedicated paid family leave through their jobs - which is to say that no one has the guarantees available in most of the rest of the world.

The lack of paid leave is especially detrimental to low-paid workers, who are less able to afford paid care for children or ailing loved ones, less likely to have jobs that can be performed remotely or over which they have scheduling control, less likely to have savings to cushion an unpaid leave, and more likely to have health and caregiving issues.

States Are Leading the Way with Meaningful Wins

Beyond employer provided paid leave, 12 states including the District of Columbia have adopted paid family and medical leave programs designed as universal, comprehensive social insurance, and eight of those – in California, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Washington – are currently paying benefits to workers.

Oregon’s new paid leave program will begin providing workers with benefits in September 2023. Colorado’s program is scheduled to begin paying benefits in 2024, Maryland’s in 2025 and Delaware’s in 2026. Each state will begin collecting fund contributions from workers, employers or both in advance to create self-sustaining funds. The Better Life Lab’s Paid Leave Benefits and Funding explainer provides much more detail on how these comprehensive, inclusive state policies work: what benefits they pay, how they are funded and what they cover. As discussed below, several new states could pass or meaningfully advance paid leave in 2023.

Part Two: Looking Ahead to 2023, Opportunities for Progress in Federal and State Legislatures, Workplaces, Culture, and Politics

Advocates in front of a bus that says "Let's Make History Together. Care Can't Wait. Paid Leave for All."

Here are five key areas for paid leave opportunity in 2023 and beyond:

  1. Pressure for Federal Policy Builds as the FMLA Turns 30

In less than two months – on February 5, 2023 – the country will mark 30 years since enactment of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which created unpaid leave rights for some workers, but continues to leave more than 40 percent of workers – including disproportionately workers with the fewest resources and the greatest care needs – unprotected from job loss when a serious personal or family or caregiving need arises.

Ten years ago, the 20th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act was a moment for celebration, reflection and rededication to the pursuit of paid family and medical leave.

Since then:

  • National paid leave has gained increasing numbers of policymaker supporters, endorsements from hundreds of advocacy organizations and businesses, numerous congressional hearings, and support from presidential candidates.
  • Ten of the 12 state programs have passed in the past 10 years, and the two original programs – in California and New Jersey – have been expanded to better serve workers and families.
  • Federal workers won paid parental leave in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2019.
  • In 2020, some workers received federally-required emergency paid sick and child care leave during eight months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
  • In 2021, national paid leave for all workers was included in the President’s American Families Plan and the year culminated in House passage of a comprehensive national paid leave program. Our analysis with the Urban Institute explains how the House-passed program contained some key elements of an effective policy and suggests areas for future improvement, analysis and research.
The FMLA’s 30th anniversary should be a catalyst for action.

President Biden, a longtime paid leave supporter, should use the 30th anniversary of a law he voted for as a Senator and has fought to expand to re-articulate his administration’s commitment to federally-guaranteed paid leave, the expansion of unpaid FMLA leave, and the adoption of more state policies. The White House and key administration officials should host events, and should use the State of the Union address and the administration’s FY 2024 budget to highlight their commitment. The Department of Labor should use its power to enhance education, outreach, regulatory guidance and research focused on both paid and unpaid leave.

Leaders in Congress should use the moment to put forward new federal legislation in the 118th Congress modeled on the refinements made throughout consideration of paid leave in 2021 and 2022. Senate champions chair relevant committees and should convene hearings – building on a series of hearings and markups that the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee held in the 116th and 117th Congresses. In the U.S. House, the announcement of a new bipartisan working group provides opportunities to build more research-based support across the aisle. There will be new omnibus packages that could include paid leave in 2023-24. Alternatively, further down the road in 2025, Republican tax cut provisions passed in 2017 expire – and this could be an opportunity to enact a permanent paid leave program if conditions in Congress are favorable.

To build more urgency for action, the time is ripe for organizing and educating in communities and with constituencies that have traditionally received less attention: For example, the Better Life Lab’s recent report Health, Work and Care in Rural America shows that the need for paid leave in rural areas of the United States is great and distances to hospital-based health care are long, with disproportionate impact on Latine/Hispanic working families and people living in areas of persistent poverty; the report argues that paid leave could be a health, labor force and economic opportunity intervention for rural communities. Policymakers should listen to the patient-caregiver coalition convened in 2021 by the American Cancer Society-Cancer Action Network, which argued for paid leave for people who are dealing with serious health issues and the family caregivers who support and care for them. Small businesses who see paid leave as a competitive must-have and a cost-saver are also valuable contributors for Congress to hear from. And heeding the calls of worker justice advocates – anchored by Black, brown and frontline workers whose voices are too often unheard – is imperative.

In short, paid leave is positioned for more federal progress, and must be a central topic of 2023 and 2024 policy debates. Support for public investments in a national paid leave program is bipartisan among voters. More debate, free of ideological preconceptions, could make it so for lawmakers as well.

2. More State Victories and State Policy Implementation on the Horizon

Multiple states in the 2023-24 legislative sessions are primed to consider and pass paid leave, potentially joining the dozen states with existing programs that are or will soon be in place. For example:

  • In Maine, the legislature is positioned to take up the recommendations of a legislative commission and consider paid leave and, if legislative consideration falters, a ballot measure is waiting in the wings.
  • In Minnesota, each chamber of the legislature has passed paid leave before – and now the trifecta makes enactment much more likely.
  • In New Mexico, similar to Maine, a legislative task force has made recommendations that the legislature will consider in considering a new paid family and medical leave program.
  • In Vermont, the legislature has passed paid leave before and likely has the votes to do so again, perhaps with enough votes to override a veto, and with the support of Lieutenant Governor Molly Gray. The governor, however, is moving unilaterally to replicate a voluntary employer purchasing that New Hampshire’s governor adopted (more on that below).

Several other states have longstanding efforts that could be poised for success in states with Democratic-controlled or closely divided legislatures and Democratic governors. In 2024, at least one and possibly more states could consider ballot measures, potentially replicating Colorado paid leave’s success at the ballot in 2020.

Also in 2023, Oregon and Colorado will complete the build-out of their state programs and begin to collect program funds. We should watch how government agencies, employer organizations and community-based groups that serve workers help to build program awareness, foster excitement and maximize early take-up.

There are two other states to watch to see how a different approach – optional, voluntary programs – does or doesn’t serve the needs of workers, businesses and the state:

  • In 2021, New Hampshire adopted a voluntary paid leave pool, where public sector workers are automatically covered for 6 weeks of paid family leave at 60 percent of their wages and private employers and some privately employed workers can opt-in to this program. Only one insurance company completed the requirements necessary to bid to insure this program, meaning there was no competition to keep prices in check. The estimated rates for most employers to voluntarily participate are higher than in the universal state programs that currently exist, and the 6-week/60 percent benefits provided are stingier than most state programs. Insurance coverage begins on January 1, 2023 for employers who choose to participate. We should watch closely to see whether access increases and among which types of workers.
  • In 2022, Virginia approved life insurers to sell paid family leave insurance plans that meet the approval of the State Corporation Commission, which regulates the sale of insurance in the commonwealth. Applications could be submitted beginning on July 1, 2022, yet thus far, no insurers have submitted plans for approval, which guarantees that no workers in Virginia will gain new paid family leave coverage because of this new law as 2023 dawns. As the year progresses, we should see whether insurers apply to offer paid family leave coverage and, if so, which employers choose to purchase it and whether workers see the benefit.

3. Workplace Paid Leave As a Bargaining Chip

Employer-provided paid leave is a story of mixed and stratified success – and 2023 could prove to be a turning point. In 2022, data from large companies showed some retrenchment in paid parental leave benefits from pandemic highs, and at the same time, women founders and business leaders, including founders of the Skimm, leaned into paid leave as an attraction and retention tool. The Skimm’s campaign encourages transparency – and, consistent with other nationally-representative data, this transparency shows significant gaps in paid leave offerings between birthing and non-birthing parents, types of caregiving leaves, and professional and hourly workers. How companies choose to close these gaps – or not – is something to watch.

The pandemic’s effects have also fueled worker organizing focused on paid leave. Railroad workers failed to ratify a new contract and forced congressional intervention over access to paid sick time. Graduate students at the University of California have named inadequate paid family leave in their list of grievances. Corporations who are fighting unionization efforts, including Starbucks, are using paid leave benefits as leverage.

In 2023, we will see how worker organizing and business’ needs to hire and retain workers converge. Ideally the pressure on both sides will create more urgency for both public policy and private action. Moreover, as more states pass paid leave, additional pressure will build for federal action, encouraging some traditionally-opposed groups to a negotiating table.

Corporations’ continued response to the Dobbs abortion decision and whether companies that are trying to prove themselves as allies to employees incorporate paid leave into their action plans is another key area of focus for 2023. It will also be interesting to see whether companies and business trade associations continue to focus on gender and racial equity as diversity, equity and inclusion goals, and whether and how the work they do in this space includes advocating for – or opposing – public policies like paid leave. Advocates should make strong efforts to praise companies who support public policies, and need to enhance accountability and consumer pressure on bad actors.

4. Shifts in Cultural Norms and Representations of Work, Family and Care

Culture and policy fuel one another. A myriad of news and feature stories, business news and podcasts (including the Better Life Lab’s own podcast, Crisis Conversations) has now focused for years on all aspects of managing work, family and care.

And yet sometimes news and journalism isn’t enough to move hearts and minds or shift public understanding about public and private spheres. Television and film is one place where more can be done to normalize conversations about work, family and caregiving – just as television normalized seat belts and revolutionized American attitudes toward LGBTQ equality. The Better Life Lab and our partners at Caring Across Generations recently amplified and praised several key examples of the ways in which scripted television can represent caregiving and work-family challenges, in 2022’s 10 Most Moving Moments for Care on TV. From This is Us’ end-of-life story and ongoing representations of caregiving for children and an aging family member, to Abbott Elementary’s reminders that people with caregiving responsibilities are often misunderstood and feel they must hide, to Grey’s Anatomy’s illustration of the invisible mental load that parents – usually mothers – carry, television normalized the kinds of circumstances so many people face and, in some cases, pointed toward solutions.

In 2023, there are more stories to be told across all genres of television and film to give visibility to people’s work-family and care challenges. These stories can depict caregiving in more meaningful and realistic ways - something that Caring Across Generations’ culture strategists have advocated for and worked on for years. Scripted and unscripted stories can debunk the stigmas that exist around gender, work, family and care and that so many workers have internalized and carry with them when choosing to keep their caregiving and parenting responsibilities quiet at work – a focus of the Better Life Lab’s work. In addition, we urge storytellers to link abortion restrictions and reproductive justice to the broader U.S. context in which people make reproductive health decisions – child care that is difficult to find and expensive, paid leave that is rare, jobs that pay too little and offer too little stability, and more

5. Activating Voters and Lawmakers Around Paid Leave

Paid leave should be a voting issue, just as health care and education are. In 2022, some organizations, like the Campaign for a Family Friendly Economy’s Friendly Action PAC, canvassed and engaged voters around issues like paid leave and reducing families’ costs in battleground states and had tremendous success. MomsRising staff and volunteers made phone calls and generated postcards to voters, and even set up child-friendly activities at polling places. Paid Leave for All Action and the National Partnership for Women & Families Action Fund named paid leave champions currently in office, and Paid Leave for All Action ran ads in key states. State partners of Family Values @ Work made paid leave and care issues central to their fall 2022 public education and civic engagement efforts. A number of organizations involved in paid leave, care and economic justice advocacy, including Care in Action, Poder Latinx and UnidosUS Action mobilized and educated voters.

In 2023, advocates and people with lived experience, including through the Care Can’t Wait campaign and state civic engagement tables, should develop robust programs for off-year elections and for 2024 that center paid leave and other care priorities. Funders with political funding resources and the political consulting class must then invest and support these efforts. All partners should look for intersections with other gender, racial, economic and health justice field organizing, education, communications and political accountability work to help elevate the salience and urgency of addressing working families’ needs and robust new public investments.

As we close out 2022, the evidence is clear: Paid leave is a high-need, high-value policy that has benefits for workers, families, businesses and communities. Policy change, private sector leadership and culture change all reinforce one another. Philanthropists, advocates, workers, researchers and policy leaders must press ahead on all fronts, continuing to organize, advocate, educate and build support across communities until every working person has paid leave for all serious family and medical care needs, no matter where they live or their job. We've seen what lawmakers can do when they focus. Paid leave and all care investments should be next.