Paid Family and Medical Leave is a crucial step towards modernizing our economy

NOTE: This archived article references bills from the 2021 legislative session.

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The topic of paid family and medical leave (PFML) has been on state policymakers’ radars throughout the last two decades, with California being the first state to guarantee paid family leave in 2002. Since then, nine states have passed paid family leave laws. In the years following the implementation of these laws, researchers have examined the impacts of these policies and found that increased employee access to paid leave improves infant and maternal health while adding minimal (if any) cost to employers. Despite its benefits, access to paid family leave is not widespread, especially for lower-wage families. In 2020, four in five workers in the U.S. lacked access to paid family leave. To improve Oklahomans’ health and increase the labor force, the Oklahoma Legislature should guarantee paid family leave benefits to our state’s workers.

Most Oklahomans are provided with unpaid family and medical leave through the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which provides up to 12 weeks of leave for many workers. Though this leave is unpaid, it does provide job security and continuation of health benefits for eligible workers. However, the FMLA does not cover employees who haven’t worked for their employer for the previous 12 months, employees who work less than an average of 25 hours per week, and employees at a business with fewer than 50 employees. This means that two in five employees do not have access to federally protected family or medical leave, whether paid or unpaid. Furthermore, not all covered employees can afford to use the unpaid leave they are guaranteed. Almost half of the employees who need to take family or medical leave do not take advantage of the FMLA because they cannot afford to forego their wages. This economic disparity in access to leave is especially pronounced in Oklahoma, where a quarter of jobs are considered low wage. Approximately 28,000 Oklahoma workers earn at or below the federal minimum wage–which is significantly below the living wage for one person. Unpaid leave is simply not an option for many low-income families,  and we should ensure that every worker has access to the leave that they need to care for their family.

Paid family leave shows clear benefits to families

Paid family leave provides benefits to children in a number of measurable outcomes. The main reason is that children require intense care and focus during the first few months of their life to help ensure proper cognitive, social, and emotional development. Access to paid family leave means that parents are not caught in the bind of having to choose between ensuring this level of care for their child or maintaining a stable income. Research also shows that mothers who use paid family leave are more likely to breastfeed longer, which reduces the rate of childhood infections. Additionally, children whose parents used paid parental leave are less likely to die as infants, become overweight in elementary school, or develop ADHD or hearing-related problems. Guaranteeing paid family leave would be an investment in many facets of our children’s health, which will, in turn, benefit their health and financial outcomes as adults. Given Oklahoma’s extremely low rankings in childhood health from multiple organizations, it is imperative that we enact policies that give all of our children a better chance at a healthy life.

Paid family leave policies also improve adults’ physical and mental health. Evidence suggests that mothers who use paid family leave are less likely to experience postpartum depression and more likely to report better health and higher confidence in their ability to care for their child. One study found that paid family leave led to improved maternal body mass index, blood pressure, pain, and mental health. Oklahoma’s families need support in order to thrive and guaranteeing paid family and medical leave is a proven way to uplift families’ physical and mental health.

Paid family leave is a necessity for our modern economy

Paid family and medical leave policies aren’t just good for our health; they’re good for our economy. A 2015 publication from the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee lists many economic benefits provided by paid family leave. It finds that the presence of paid family and medical leave policies improves women’s labor force participation rates, boosts productivity, and decreases the use of public assistance. Even the conservative-leaning Cato Institute supports paid leave programs, acknowledging their necessity in today’s economy. Almost two-thirds of families nationally have two working parents, and more than one in three Oklahoman children live in single-parent households. Refusing to give parents the needed flexibility to care for their children — especially during a pivotal developmental stage — places an unsustainable strain on our low- and middle-income families. 

Recognizing the importance of paid family and medical leave to our families, state legislators proposed three bills this session that would have brought a paid family and medical leave program to Oklahoma. Both House Bill 1615 (Rep. Forrest Bennett, D-Oklahoma City) and HB 2456 (Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman) would have guaranteed four weeks’ paid leave to take care of a family member or armed service member and eight weeks to attend to a serious personal health condition, including pregnancy. Benefits would cover up to 50 percent of the state average weekly wage with a minimum of $500 per week. A payroll tax would fund the program at a rate set by the State Treasurer and levied equally on each employee and their employer. 

In the State Senate, Senate Bill 426 (Sen. J.J. Dossett, D-Owasso) would have provided six weeks of leave, paid at 65 percent of the employee’s wage, to care for a family member or allow a parent to bond with a newborn or newly adopted child. Unlike the House bills, SB 426 did not allow the employee to take leave to tend to their own severe health conditions. 

Unfortunately, all of these bills died in committee and were unable to be heard on the House or Senate floors. While the duration of leave provided in these bills is far shorter than what other states that have passed paid family and medical leave provide, enacting any sort of paid family leave program would be a major step towards providing support for working families.

  HB 1615 HB 2456 SB 426*
Duration of leave

– Four weeks to care for family member or new child;

– Eight weeks to care for serious personal health condition

– Four weeks to care for family member or new child;

– Eight weeks to care for serious personal health condition

– Six weeks

Weekly benefit rate 50% of employee’s average weekly wage in past 12 months 50% of employee’s average weekly wage in past 12 months 65% of employee’s average weekly wage in past 12 months
Minimum benefit $500 per week $500 per week N/A
Maximum benefit 50% of state average weekly wage 50% of state average weekly wage N/A
Covered uses

– Caring for personal, family member’s, or armed service member’s serious health condition

– Bonding with newborn or newly adopted child

– Caring for personal, family member’s, or armed service member’s serious health condition

– Bonding with newborn or newly adopted child

– Caring for family member’s serious health condition

– Bonding with newborn or newly adopted child

*This bill is not clear on precisely how it would work. Our summary is based on our understanding of the intent and a summary by Senate staff.

Given the benefits to our health and our economy, enacting a paid family and medical leave program for Oklahoma is a clear next step towards making our state a Top Ten state. Doing so would provide support for our working parents and healthier developmental outcomes for our children.

Actions for Advocates

  • Contact your legislators to tell them why Oklahoma families need a paid family and medical leave. 
  • Share your story if you have benefited from paid family or sick leave, or if lack of access to PFML negatively impacted your family situation.


About the Author

Josie Phillips published this blog post as a policy intern for OK Policy and transitioned into a Policy Fellowship with a focus on labor and the economy in August 2021. Read her full bio below.


Josie Phillips joined OK Policy in June 2020 as a policy intern and transitioned into a policy Fellowship with a focus on labor and the economy in August 2021. She served as a Policy Fellow until July 2022. She currently serves as State Priorities Partnership Fellow with the Maine Center on Economic Policy. Josie graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 2020 with a double major in Economics and International & Area Studies along with a minor in Spanish. While she has dabbled in working with various non profit organizations and a political campaign, her most treasured experience before entering the public policy field has been her time volunteering with the Women’s Resource Center, a rape crisis center and domestic violence shelter in Norman, Oklahoma.

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