Workers need Paid Family and Medical Leave all the time, not just during a public health emergency

COVID-19 Policy Analysis: As our nation confronts the COVID-19 pandemic, OK Policy will be analyzing state and federal policies that impact our state and its residents during this national health emergency. These posts reflect the most current information available at publication, and we will update or publish follow-ups as new information becomes available.

NOTE: OK Policy is not a state agency and we cannot assist in applying for state services or provide legal advice.

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The current coronavirus pandemic makes it clear that paid leave, including paid family and medical leave, is a key employee benefit. The lack of this benefit is difficult even in the best of times, and it can be catastrophic during a public health emergency such as the one we’re facing now. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, adopted last week by the federal government, includes a limited paid family and medical leave benefit, but it will be inadequate for many families during this emergency. American workers need a comprehensive, permanent solution. Some states have already stepped up to provide paid family and medical leave to their residents, and Oklahoma should join their ranks.

The federal relief package provides limited paid family and medical leave

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act will provide two weeks of paid sick leave to about half the country’s workforce, and additional paid family and medical leave to parents whose children cannot go to school or childcare due to the pandemic. Unfortunately, not all workers will receive this paid leave. Employers with more than 500 workers will not be required to provide the leave, and small businesses and health care providers may also be exempted by the U.S. Department of Labor. This means at least half of the American workforce cannot access these temporary paid leave benefits. Families who do not qualify for federal emergency paid family and medical leave may not have any other options, as only 19 percent of civilian workers have employer-provided paid family and medical leave.

Nine states have adopted programs to cover almost all workers

Workers in the nine states that have adopted statewide programs to provide paid family and medical leave will be better supported during this public health emergency than those in states without similar benefits. 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. Employees apply for benefits through a state agency when they experience a qualifying event, like welcoming a new child or seeking treatment for a serious health condition. Though these programs don’t provide the employees their full salary in benefits, they do provide some income while on leave. Most states also allow independent contractors and self-employed individuals to voluntarily opt into the program, providing some security to a group of workers that do not receive employer-sponsored benefits. 

Many workers will have no access to paid leave during this crisis, or after

Oklahoma is not of the nine states that make paid family and medical leave available to its residents. This means we will be forced to make some very difficult choices in the coming weeks and months. Will we risk financial insecurity to take time off to care for ourselves and our family? Or will we continue to work and leave our family, possibly without care, when we’re most needed? 

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) 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. Further, it’s not clear if these protections would be available to workers who are quarantined but not actually sick. The FMLA provides leave to take care of a serious health condition, but it’s not clear if quarantined workers with no symptoms who are not receiving medical care will be classified as having a serious health condition. 

During this crisis, many workers will be left without access to paid or unpaid job-protected leave, and that’s bad for all of us. In this unique emergency, we need to stay home whenever possible to avoid getting sick ourselves or passing the virus on to others. Paid leave makes that possible without requiring workers to risk financial ruin. 

Paid leave will continue to be necessary when this public health emergency has passed

Leave provided under FMLA can be helpful to workers who are eligible to take it. Unfortunately, 4 in 10 workers are not covered by FMLA and will only have access to leave if their employer chooses to offer it. Reasons an employee might be ineligible for FMLA include:

  • Their employer has fewer than 50 employees
  • They have been with their current employer for less than 12 months
  • They work, on average, less than 25 hours per week for a single employer

These exemptions to FMLA leave many of us, especially part-time workers and those working more than one job, without access to leave. We may have access to sick days or vacation days if our employer offers those benefits and we qualify, but that is not guaranteed. It’s especially unlikely that low-wage workers and workers in part-time jobs will have access to this kind of benefit.

Most importantly, FMLA leave is unpaid, and that makes it inaccessible for many workers who are eligible. Simply put, many of us cannot afford to sacrifice their income without paid leave. Of employees who needed family or medical leave but did not take it, 44.2 percent reported that they declined to take leave because they could not afford unpaid time off. In fact, not being able to afford it was the most common reason given for not taking leave.

Paid family and medical leave should be available to all workers because everyone will need time off to care for themselves or a loved one at some point. This benefit is a crucial piece of physical and financial family health, and it also benefits employers through improved morale and retention. Because such programs can be expensive for employers to offer on their own, statewide programs are an effective way to share the cost of this benefit and make sure it reaches all workers. Oklahoma can, and should, join the nine states already offering this benefit to improve the health and financial security of all Oklahomans. 


Courtney Cullison worked for OK Policy from 2017 to 2020 as a policy analyst focused on issues of economic opportunity and financial security. Before coming to OK Policy, Courtney worked in higher education, holding faculty positions at the University of Texas at Tyler and at Connors State College in eastern Oklahoma. A native Oklahoman, she received an Honors B.A. in Political Science from Oklahoma State University, and an M.A. and Ph.D. with emphasis in congressional politics and public policy from the University of Oklahoma. While at OU, Courtney was a fellow at the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center. As a professor she taught classes in American politics, public policy, and research methods and conducted original research with a focus on the relationship between representatives and the constituents they serve.

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