Speaking of Women's Rights: What Paid Family & Medical Leave Means to Me—and What It Means for You

Friday, June 30, 2017

What Paid Family & Medical Leave Means to Me—and What It Means for You

By Janet Chung

Some 25 or so years ago, I was just out of college and about to start law school, excited to be an intern at the then-Women’s Legal Defense Fund (now, the National Partnership for Women & Families). I was tasked with researching state family and medical leave laws as part of the effort to pass the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.

To be honest, the research was somewhat academic to me at the time; interesting, but academic. I learned that the U.S. lagged behind almost every developed nation because we lacked (and still do) even paid maternity leave, let alone other forms of paid leave. I learned that some states had passed laws that protected people’s jobs when they had to take time off from work to care for their families or for themselves. I learned that it was important to make these laws gender-neutral, because even if women are in fact still most often the primary caregivers in their families and the ones to give birth, and therefore, the ones who need the time off, a law limited to maternity leave would keep that status quo and reinforce stereotypes. (I am quite sure I was not aware of the idea of transgender men becoming pregnant until 2008. [And to the naysayers: I stand by the utility of my People magazine subscription!])

In short, I knew being able to keep your job when you experienced a family health crisis or a new baby was important. Yet still, unpaid leave for those reasons wasn’t something I personally needed. Moreover, the idea of paid family and medical leave was, if you will, still but a gleam in my eye. Pie in the sky.

Several years later, I was back at the National Partnership as a legal fellow. At that point, after multiple vetoes, thanks to a change in the executive branch, the Family and Medical Leave Act had finally been signed into law (in 1993). I still remember my boss, the visionary Donna Lenhoff, telling me, “Now, we need to start working on paid leave.” She referred to it as “family leave insurance,” or “income” – because the idea was that funding wouldn’t be the sole responsibility of the individual, or any one employer. Rather, it would be like the unemployment insurance system – a system that relied on pooled funds to help soften the blow when the unpredictable rainy days came to pass.

Fast forward a few years. At this point, I am no longer a carefree single person, with parents in good health, with a good stable income, whose primary concern was where to go on my next vacation. I am now a working lawyer, a mother who’s experienced two pregnancies, one with some complications and that ended in a C-section. I am no longer part of a high-earning dual-income couple. My parents and children have been diagnosed with serious health conditions. I’ve watched close friends and colleagues experience caring for their parents through declining health and, often, up to death. They’ve also miscarried, been placed on bed rest, and had children, some with serious health conditions. Friends have had brain tumors, cancer diagnoses, hip replacements. Because that is life. 

So the passage of paid family and medical leave law in my adopted home state of Washington is particularly meaningful to me. I still consider myself lucky, privileged. But after those intervening decades, I now know – this isn’t just academic. This law is not merely a statement piece for gender equality. This is an important progressive policy that will transform thousands of lives. Like yours. Like mine.

Because let’s face it: America simply hasn’t been that great to too many of its denizens. So it’s wonderful, on the eve of the celebration of our nation’s birth, to have something to celebrate that shows the best of what our democratic process can create: a law that values the people and their families who are at the country’s heart.

Highlights of the new law:
  • Once the law goes into effect, you will be able to take up to 12 weeks of paid leave for family caregiving and 12 weeks of paid medical leave, with a combined annual cap of 16 weeks of paid leave. For those with pregnancy-related health complications, the cap is extended to 18 weeks. 
  • A key feature is portability; to be eligible, you have to have worked a threshold number of hours (820 hours in the qualifying period, which in most cases is the first 4 of the last 5 quarters), but the hours can be with different employers. Moreover, even self-employed individuals and independent contractors can elect coverage. 
  • The law also defines “family” broadly to include children, grandchildren, grandparents, parents, parents-in-law, siblings, and spouses – in recognition of the reality of family caregiving. 
  • The benefit is a progressive benefit; in other words, those who earn less will receive a larger percentage of their wage, while high-earning workers will receive a smaller percentage of their wage. 
  • The program will be funded by contributions from both employers and employees. Someone working full time at $13.50 an hour and making about $28,000 a year will pay $1.36 a week and the employer will pay $.80 a week. Employers with 50 or fewer employees are exempt from paying the employer share of the premium. 
  • Employees of employers with 50 or more employees are entitled to be restored to the same or equivalent job, as with the FMLA. 
For more information, check out our Washington Work & Family Coalition website, which will be updated with the most current information about the new law. You can join us in thanking the key legislators who made this policy a reality by signing our community card.