Paid leave for all: Worker advocates demand expanded protections

"People are desperate for paid leave," one advocate said, calling it "policy that is needed and popular"

By Andrea Germanos

Published February 5, 2022 8:00PM (EST)

Amazon workers arrive at the company's warehouse (ERIC PIERMONT/AFP via Getty Images)
Amazon workers arrive at the company's warehouse (ERIC PIERMONT/AFP via Getty Images)

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Economic justice advocates and Democratic lawmakers on Saturday issued fresh demands for comprehensive paid leave for the nation's workers, saying such protections would address crucial gaps in labor law that the ongoing pandemic has underscored.

The calls came on the 29th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which provides eligible employees with up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave to care for a new child or take care of one's own or family member's illness. But, worker advocates say, the groundbreaking law is sorely insufficient, because the leave is unpaid and FMLA doesn't cover all workers.

"It's been 29 years today since the FMLA was passed—the first federal protection for people to take time off work when they need it most. But about 10.5 million need leave and don't take it," tweeted the National Women's Law Center.

"All workers should not only be covered," the group added, "but be able to afford to take their leave."

The House Education and Labor Committee similarly noted that "millions of workers are not eligible for FMLA. And unpaid leave is not practical for most Americans."

"We must build on the FMLA by expanding access to PAID leave for workers across the country," the panel added.

Such expansion would also help advance racial equity.

According to NARAL Pro-Choice America: "The 44% of Americans not covered by the FMLA include 48% of Latinx workers, 47% of AAPI workers, and 43% of Black workers. Every American should be covered by the FMLA."

In a Friday statement, Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who heads the Senate's Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said the lack of guaranteed paid leave is especially problematic in light of the ultra-contagious Omicron variant.

"American parents still can't take paid time to care for a seriously ill child. Patients can't take paid time to recover from surgery or cope with a cancer diagnosis. And workers with a cold, the flu, or even Covid-19, can't take the time to get well and keep their coworkers safe—because they would risk losing a paycheck or even their job," said Murray and Gillibrand.

In addition to harming families and the economy, the pair said the absence of paid leave and sick days is "hurting our ability to fight this pandemic. If we want to stop the spread of Omicron, be ready for whatever this pandemic brings next, and prepare for future public health crises—then we need paid leave."

Pointing to recent polling showing overwhelming public support for such protections, the lawmakers added that "the call for paid leave has never been clearer or louder from all corners of our country" and urged their congressional colleagues to help enact such a measure.

President Joe Biden, for his part, said in a Saturday tweet marking the FMLA anniversary that he is "committed to continuing the fight for national paid family and medical leave."

That vow was welcomed by Center for Economic and Policy Research co-director Eileen Appelbaum, who expressed hope Biden would "push for it when bills to provide it are introduced in the Congress."

"People are desperate for paid leave," she said, calling it "policy that is needed and popular."

Andrea Germanos

Andrea Germanos is a senior editor and staff writer at Common Dreams.

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Family And Medical Leave Act Labor Patty Murray Senate Workplace Safety