A Nation of Paid Family Leave Have- and Have-Nots Characterizes the United States in 2023

New Bureau of Labor Statistics Data on Workers' Paid Family Leave Access Underscores the Need for Policy Change
Blog Post
Photo of a person's hands holding an empty wallet
Towfiqu Barbhuiya on Unsplash
Sept. 21, 2023

As workers, families and businesses strive to find a new “normal,” new U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics National Compensation Survey Employee Benefits data released September 21, 2023 shows that a different path – federal policy intervention that complements state public policies and private sector practice – is needed for ensuring workers’ access to paid family and medical leave.

As of March 2023, just 27% of private-sector workers (and 27% of civilian workers in the U.S. overall) had paid family leave at their jobs to care for a new child or an ill loved one – a 3-percentage-point change for private-sector workers from 2022. Only 43% of private-sector workers have short-term disability insurance for their own serious personal health issues requiring time away from work, the same as 2022. And while 78% of private-sector workers have paid sick time for shorter-term illness-related absences, 61% of the lowest-wage workers (those making less than $14 per hour) and 44% of all lower-wage workers (those making under $17 per hour) still do not.

This new data translates into a startling finding that 106 million workers in the country – and more than 92 million private-sector workers – do not have employer-provided paid family leave at their jobs.

This data underscores the necessity of new public policy interventions guaranteeing workers’ access to income replacement when they need to take time away from their jobs to welcome a new child, address a serious health issue of their own or care for an ill, injured or disabled loved one. Workers’ access has failed to change appreciably, despite a tight labor market and employment levels that have rebounded from the COVID-19 pandemic. Notably, access has also not changed despite the availability of federal tax credits for businesses targeted to the provision of paid leave for middle- and lower-wage workers, which have been available since 2018.

Over the last 10 years (2013-2023), access to paid family leave has increased substantially, from 12% of private sector workers in 2013 to 27% in 2023, and this is certainly important progress. Evidence shows the value for workers, businesses and the economy.

But progress has been – and continues to be – quite uneven. In 2023, workers in the top-decile of wage earners are 10 times more likely to have paid family leave at work than the lowest wage workers. Inequality has grown over time. And there are implications: lower- and middle-wage workers are unlikely to have access to paid leave benefits and are also least likely to be able to go without pay during serious family and medical shocks.

Across sectors, progress has also been uneven. Professional workers are most likely to have paid leave and access has grown; there have also been considerable recent increases in the manufacturing sector. At the same time, access among service workers has grown slightly overall and decreased in food service, leisure, and accommodations.

State-level policymakers have been innovators. There are now nine states (California, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Washington) where paid family and medical leave programs are in place, with newer programs and improvements on older programs growing more reflective of the wage replacement rates and benefit levels, family care coverage, and job protections that workers need in order to use the leave that is available to them. Colorado’s benefits will become available in January 2024, and four additional programs (Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota) are in the process of implementing recently-enacted programs that will be fully implemented in 2026.

More state progress is on the horizon: Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, recently announced support for a paid family and medical leave program that the legislature is currently considering. Bills in New Mexico and Vermont passed one chamber in each state in 2023 and lawmakers will be back to urge their colleagues to pass these bills again in 2024. There is also growing momentum for paid leave programs in Illinois and Pennsylvania. And voters could have the chance to decide on paid leave through ballot measures in other states if legislators do not act.

As a country, it’s an important expression of values in family, freedom, health, and equity – as well as critical to building a more inclusive and stronger economy – to guarantee all working people and their loved ones to guarantee access to time to care. A state-by-state or business-by-business approach is not enough. Unless there’s a dramatic change of sentiment in states across the country that have never acted to address families’ family and medical needs, tens of millions of people – especially in states that also currently restrict access to reproductive decisions – will be left behind.

There’s precedent for federal action to dramatically expand access to paid leave. In 2019, federal workers won paid parental leave, which became available in October 2020. In September 2021, the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee, then chaired by Rep. Richard Neal, passed a strong paid family and medical leave proposal out of committee, and this was the basis for the first-ever policy to pass the House of Representatives in pared-back form through the Build Back Better Act in November 2021, before paid leave, child care and home-and-community-based care investments were stripped from a companion bill in the Senate in 2022.

Earlier this year, President Biden re-affirmed his administration’s commitment to paid family and medical leave by proposing $325 billion over 10 years for a new permanent program in his fiscal year 2024 budget. The FAMILY Act, a national program that builds on lessons from state success, is pending in Congress. A bipartisan group of House lawmakers have formed a paid leave working group and urged leadership of both parties to consider the issue, and Senators are discussing the issue across party lines as well.

As the 2024 election season moves forward, paid family and medical leave – along with other essential investments in child care and care options for older people and people with disabilities – should be at the top of every candidate’s agenda and on every voter’s demand list. This is the great unfinished business of our time and a critically important anchor for growing the workforce, investing in health and economic security, encouraging entrepreneurship and closing gender, racial and economic equity gaps.

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