Note: This post was originally published during the 2021 legislative session.
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Paid family and medical leave is a policy that provides employees who have paid a set amount into the system with a certain amount of paid time off from work to attend to their family, whether it’s caring for a newborn, bonding with a newly adopted child or foster child, or tending to the employee’s or a family member’s severe health condition.
Paid family and medical leave is contrasted with paid sick leave for short-term illnesses and leave provided through the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides employment protections through unpaid leave. This leave, however, does not cover all employees, and many covered employees cannot afford to take unpaid leave, further limiting its accessibility.
While paid family and medical leave policies are standard in nearly every country, the U.S. is one of only eight countries in the world (and the only “developed” country) to not guarantee access to paid family and medical leave. However, nine states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation that provides paid family and medical leave to most employees. These state programs work similarly to unemployment insurance and are financed with a small payroll tax, which is usually less than 1 percent of wages.
In the current Oklahoma legislative session, there were three bills that would have established a paid family and medical leave program in the state. Unfortunately, these bills never progressed past committee. The states that have succeeded in enacting paid family and medical leave can give us ideas for how Oklahoma could structure its own sorely needed paid family and medical leave legislation in the future.
When it comes to paid family and medical leave, even very little is better than nothing
One of the first considerations when constructing a paid family and medical leave program is the length of leave. Evidence suggests that the optimal amount of leave with regard to infant and maternal health, as well as maternal labor force participation, ranges from six months to a year. Paid family and medical leave policies in the U.S., however, provide significantly less leave. The amount of leave provided in the U.S. ranges from four to 12 weeks to care for a family member or bond with a newborn or newly adopted child. Paid leave to tend to a severe personal health condition is more generous, ranging from 12 to 52 weeks across the U.S.
When it comes to paid family and medical leave, even very little is better than nothing. The first state to pass paid family and medical leave, California, provides some of the most generous benefits in the country with 52 weeks of paid personal disability leave and eight weeks of family and medical leave. The family leave program is linked to an increase in the likelihood of new mothers being employed and working more hours as well as a decrease in food insecurity. By comparison, Rhode Island gives just 30 weeks of paid personal disability leave and only four weeks of paid family and medical leave. Despite the comparatively low duration of leave provided, Rhode Island’s paid family and medical leave program was found to significantly decrease employee absenteeism after the leave, increase personal income, improve employee health, and reduce stress.
Benefit rates should reflect the need of our low-income families
Paid family and medical leave benefits are paid out as a percentage of an employee’s weekly wages. Across the U.S., these rates range from 60 to 100 percent. To be successful, a paid family and medical leave program must set a compensation rate that balances two risks. The first risk is setting the rate too low. If the rate is set too low, then low-income Oklahomans would not be able to afford to use their leave. Approximately 28,000 Oklahomans earn equal to or less than the state minimum wage — slightly more than half of the living wage for one person in Oklahoma. Most Oklahomans earning less than a living wage will not have the luxury of taking advantage of paid leave without adding on crippling financial strain.
The second risk is setting the rate too high. This would force low-income employees to disproportionately subsidize high-income employees who do not need a large proportion of their income to securely take leave. If state policymakers want to ensure that all of Oklahoma’s workers have access to leave that will make their families healthier, then the minimum compensation must reflect the needs of our low-income families.
To address the needs of its low-income workers, California distributes its paid family and medical leave benefits on a sliding scale so that the lowest-income workers receive 70 percent of their average weekly wage while the higher income workers receive 60 percent. This sliding scale, although criticized for not helping low-income workers enough, attempts to ensure that paid leave is accessible to all employees without being prohibitively expensive. Another way that states have curtailed program costs is through setting maximum weekly benefits. Setting maximum benefit levels is a smart policy choice because it prevents the average worker from subsidizing the salaries of the highest wage earners, such as CEOs who on average make 320 times more than their employees do. Including benefit caps through sliding scale reimbursement rates and sensible maximum benefits allows policymakers to ensure that everyone has access to paid leave while simultaneously curbing unnecessary spending.
Paid family and medical leave works in other states, and it can work in Oklahoma
Paid family and medical leave is a form of social insurance. At some point, we will all need time off from work to care for ourselves or a loved one. Recognizing this need, it is vital that we create a fair and equitable system that ensures access to paid family and medical leave. Evidence from other states shows that paid family and medical leave improves family health, morale, and financial security. All of these benefits come at no cost to our businesses. Given its importance to our working families, Oklahoma should enact a paid family and medical leave program that covers workers of all income levels.
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 paid family or medical leave has 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.