Lis on Law: Paid Family Leave

Lis Wiehl

Let's say your child or parent is diagnosed with cancer, or you want to adopt or have a baby. You'll be able to take time off from work, right? Maybe. And be paid for it? Think again. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 grants parents the right to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off to care for a child, spouse, or parent with serious health conditions, or, for women, 12 weeks unpaid leave if they are sick and unable to work during pregnancy. The FMLA, along with the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), are meant to protect the jobs of parents needing to take care of a sick family member, or women choosing to get pregnant.

But the many exceptions to the law make it unworkable for many of us. For example, you have to give 30 days notice to be covered for child or family emergencies. But who can predict an emergency 30 days in advance? And you can't benefit from this law if your company has less than 50 employees, is more than 75 miles from your home, or you haven't worked at least 1,200 hours within the past 12 months.

With all these exceptions, it's hard to find a situation where anyone is permitted to take even unpaid leave. The catch-22, of course, is even if entitled to time off, all too often, employees take family leave only to find that they can't come back — they've been fired or downgraded.

But a Massachusetts bill could give families the break they've been waiting for — a family-friendly proposal. Under the new plan, Massachusetts workers could take up to 12 weeks of paid leave to care for newborns, adopted children or sick family members. It's also available to care for elderly parents, or even if you get sick down the line. Here's how it works: employees would contribute around $2 a week to a leave fund, as a built-in savings plan. With that, in an emergency you'd get paid up to $750 a week. And the program isn't mandatory. It's voluntary, like disability or life insurance, allowing each person to determine how much time off they want to invest in.

This proposal comes on the heels of recently signed legislation that extends health insurance to nearly every Massachusetts state resident. The new proposal seems to get it right. After all, who hasn't needed that elusive emergency time off? According to a Harvard study, the United States is one of just five countries (out of 160) that doesn't offer some form of paid maternity leave. Most countries in the world have laws and social policies that protect women of childbearing age in the workplace. America doesn't.

If the Massachusetts Paid Leave Bill passes, the plan would cover an additional three million workers. And, instead of working 1,000+ hours over 12 months, you would be eligible for leave after 900 hours in nine months. On top of getting paid for your time off, the plan ensures job security — making it illegal for an employer to fire someone who takes paid leave under the new policy.

Critics of the legislation say that requiring workers to pay a premium could encourage more time off and financially strain already over-stretched businesses. They say that businesses with fewer than 50 employees simply do not have the financial and human resources to grant lengthy leaves to valued employees. And that in many instances, employees don't need a full 12 weeks to deal with family emergencies.

Although it's true that more people would take leave under the new plan, research studies show employers will actually benefit — saving hundreds of millions of dollars when factoring in less turnover and fewer sick days.

But is there more to these concerns than making workers pay a dollar or two more a week? Maybe it's an undercurrent that's not being spoken about but is likely being thought: the tired mantra of "women shouldn't be working in the first place." If women just stayed home to take care of children and let men bring home the bacon, businesses would not lose money, and families would be protected. But that archaic mentality should be as much part of our history as the belief that a woman belongs in the kitchen. According to the Department of Labor, more than 69 million women are in the workforce — joining their husbands or male counterparts to provide for their families. Just look around — there are fewer single income households than ever before. For most of us to "cut it," it takes two salaries — and then some.

The Massachusetts proposed bill is the right law at the right time. Massachusetts moms (and dads) will not have to choose between caring for family or supporting them. It's a big step forward for Massachusetts, and a blueprint for the rest of the country.

Lis Wiehl joined FOX News Channel as a legal analyst in October 2001. She is currently an associate professor of law at the University of Washington School of Law. Wiehl received her undergraduate degree from Barnard College in 1983 and received her Master of Arts in Literature from the University of Queensland in 1985. In addition, she earned her Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School in 1987. To read the rest of Lis's bio, click here.