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Paid Time Off: Why the US Needs to Have a Federal Mandate

Paid time off varies between countries around the world. Unfortunately, the U.S. is one of the very few modern, industrialized countries that has not mandated some kind of paid family or medical leave allowance for employees, according to Pew Research.

Pew Research also reports that 41 other modernized countries – from Ireland to Canada, Chile, Korea, Germany, Costa Rica, and Estonia – all offer some type of paid leave. This paid time off ranges from four to 86 weeks.

FLMA Offers Some Time Off for Qualifying Events

The closest thing our country has to a federal mandate for paid time off is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), passed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton. This legislation provides up to 12 weeks of leave per year for employees who meet certain requirements, such as a minimum length of service with their employer and a minimum number of average annual hours worked. There are also exemptions for smaller employers who do not employ a minimum number of employees for a minimum number of weeks each year.

FMLA can be used for a whole host of “qualifying events,” which traditionally include major injuries and illnesses, as well as family events such as the birth or adoption of a child. Even caring for an immediate family member with a serious health condition may qualify. Military families are also covered for leave associated with service or care for military personnel, according to the Department of Labor.

FLMA Does Not Cover Paid Time Off

However, one thing that FMLA does not cover – at all – is paid time off. In other words, all that FMLA protects is the right for an employee to take up to 12 weeks off per year for qualifying events and to return to the same or a similar job when their leave is over. But it makes no requirement that employers must pay for any such time.

As a result, FMLA is often described as a kind of hollow benefit program. On its face, it offers valuable protections for leave and continued employment afterward.

But the reality is that many families do not have the kind of financial circumstances that allow them to take unpaid time off from work, even if it is federally protected. They need their paychecks, and so these leave protections end up being a moot point due to economic hardship.

Related link: How to Make Strategic Decisions about Employee Pay

Some Members of Congress Have Pushed for Paid Time Off

Democrats in Congress have long pushed for FMLA to be expanded so that some amount of paid time off is mandated for qualifying events. Even now, Democratic lawmakers have proposed the FAMILY Act, which would require that the 12 weeks of leave be paid by employers, observes CNBC. It is less than likely there will be enough support from Republicans to get it passed.

Fortunately, some states have picked up the tab where the federal government has fallen short. Eleven states now mandate paid leave of some kind with different programs and prescriptions, according to American Progress. Unsurprisingly, these states are not found in the conservative regions of the country; they are almost all in the more progressive areas of the Northeast and the Pacific coast.

Related link: Employment Discrimination Regarding Dress and Grooming Codes

Some Employers Offer Paid Time Off as a Benefit to Entice Potential Employees

But in places where such leave is still not mandated – which is most of the country – the lack of paid leave requirements has left a vacuum for employers to fill. They can compete and differentiate themselves with voluntary benefits packages that attract hardworking employees who need coverage.

For example, a long list of major companies – including Netflix, Alphabet (Google), 3M, Amazon, American Express, Apple, IKEA, Shell Oil, Twitter and Zillow – are now offering paid maternity leave programs, notes Build Remote. These maternity leave programs range from a few weeks to a full year.

But on the whole, only 40% of employers today offer any kind of paid maternity leave for employees, according to Zippia. The proportion of companies offering paid paternity leave (protecting the right of fathers to take time off from work for new children) is even lower.

paid time off 2 parent Deel
Some employers offer childcare benefits for parents with children.

Another way to approach this issue is with childcare benefits as opposed to paid leave. These benefits might help families who would otherwise require paid time off to care for their children.

 A whole host of employers have stepped up to offer childcare benefits. The Penny Hoarder says that these companies include Microsoft, Intel, Publix Supermarkets, General Mills and Aflac Insurance.

However, childcare benefits should not be equated with paid maternity and paternity leave. For many new parents, a program that provides someone else to watch your newborn or adopted child does not hold the same value as a program that allows you to care for and bond with your own child.

FMLA Does Not Go Far Enough, Which Is Why a Federal Mandate Is Necessary

However, all of the voluntary leave and care programs we’ve discussed only address the child-related qualifying events under the current FMLA framework. There are many other reasons for potentially needed leave, including medical conditions and military obligations. And far fewer employers are offering voluntary paid time off for these circumstances.

It’s clear that government action is necessary to ensure that all citizens are adequately protected – with both job security and reasonable compensation – in the event that they experience life events that require paid time off from work. As constituents, we can do our part by urging our representatives to carefully consider proposals for paid leave and pass new laws that bring the United States up to par with the rest of the modern world on the topic of paid leave protections for workers.

Gary Deel

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Member with the Wallace E. Boston School of Business. He holds an A.S. and a B.S. in Space Studies, a B.S. in Psychology, a J.D. in Law, and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for the University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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