Exclusive Commentary

Ensuring Low-Wage Workers Also “Benefit” from Benefits

Sarah Jane Glynn and Heather Boushey, Center for American Progress - Posted February 5, 2013


On February 5, 1993, President Clinton signed his first bill into law. It was no accident that the bill was the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The FMLA was the first piece of federal legislation intended to help workers manage their commitments to both their employers and their families, and Clinton campaigned on a pledge to sign the law. Unfortunately, 20 years have passed since that historic moment, and no additional work-family legislation has made its way onto the books. And while the FMLA was an important first step, there is still work to be done, especially for low-wage workers. Now is the time to extend the legacy by providing paid leave for all working Americans.

The Family and Medical Leave Act allows some individuals the right to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave in order to recover from a serious illness or injury, provide care to a newborn, newly adopted, or newly placed foster child, provide care to a seriously ill family member, or to deal with a qualifying exigency resulting from a family member who is an active duty member of the armed services. While the FMLA does not guarantee income while on leave or provide any form of wage replacement, it does ensure that benefits such as health insurance are continued while the worker is away from his or her job.

Because FMLA leave is unpaid, many are unable to benefit from the policy even when they are covered by the law and experience a qualifying life event, such as the birth of a new baby or the serious illness of a loved one. According to Department of Labor data released this month, which details both employers’ and employees’ experiences with FMLA, about half of those who needed leave but did not take it said that they kept coming to work because they could not afford to take unpaid time off.

Many individuals who take leave are able to receive at least partial pay while they are out, most often by utilizing a combination of sick leave and vacation days. But about a third of those who take FMLA leave do not receive any pay while they are out.

These individuals are disproportionately likely to be low-wage workers who have decreased access to workplace benefits like paid family leave, paid sick leave, and paid vacation.

Unsurprisingly, the most common worry around taking FMLA leave is not having enough money. Over half of the individuals who received partial or no pay while out on leave reported difficulty making ends meet. Many people manage these difficulties by limiting their spending on extras or tapping into savings. But low-wage workers have already trimmed their budgets as much as possible, and they are less likely to have savings that they can turn to.

Alarmingly, more than a third of people who did not receive full pay while on FMLA leave reported putting off paying their bills due to their financial situation, while about ten percent reported needing to go on public assistance. And four in ten ended up cutting their leave short due to financial hardships—a decision that, while economically rational, can have a devastating impact on physical, mental, and emotional health. About half of the individuals who took FMLA leave said that they would have taken more time to recover or care for their families if there had been some or additional pay involved.

Due to these financial and economic challenges, low-income workers are not able to reap all the benefits that FMLA leave has to offer. Individuals who take FMLA leave overwhelmingly report that it improves their ability to care for their family members and that it improves their own and their families’ physical health and emotional well being. Leave-takers also report that FMLA leave makes it easier to follow doctors’ orders, leads to faster recovery times, and helps to delay or avoid the need to enter nursing homes or long-term care facilities.

It is a testimony to his legacy that the first bill President Clinton chose to sign into law upon taking office was the Family and Medical Leave Act. The law created a pathway to further work-family legislation, but, unfortunately, it’s a path that has rarely been followed. Low-wage workers continue to disproportionately suffer as a result.

President Obama’s first bill signing was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, signaling his commitment to American workers and the necessity of fair and equitable pay. Let’s hope that before he leaves office he will have the opportunity to sign legislation extending paid family and medical leave to all workers, thereby guaranteeing to low-wage workers a right they critically deserve.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Sarah Jane Glynn is a policy analyst and Heather Boushey is a senior economist at the Center for American Progress.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight’s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty. If you have a question about a commentary, please don’t hesitate to contact us at info@spotlightonpoverty.org.