Zero Weeks plus Ellen Bravo on the importance of paid family and medical leave

The Economic Policy Institute had the distinct pleasure this week of hosting a showing of Ky Dickens’ new film, Zero Weeks, with a special Q&A with renowned paid leave advocate, Ellen Bravo.

The film gives the audience a glimpse into the lives of several workers and their families as they struggle to balance their own health needs and that of their families without the ability to take time off from work. A lifelong activist and leading expert on work-family issues, Ellen offered up her wide breadth and depth of her experiences and expertise following the film, sharing the long fight across the country to improve workers ability to earn paid time off to care for themselves and their families in times of need.

In 1993, the United States passed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which allows eligible employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave within a calendar year for a serious health condition, the birth of a child or to care for a newly born, adopted, or foster child, or to care for an immediate family member with a serious health condition. While it’s important to celebrate that important milestone, federal action stopped 26 years ago.

Furthermore, because eligibility for FMLA is limited based on size of firm, work hours, and tenure at job, the FMLA only provides access to unpaid leave to an estimated 56 percent of the workforce. But the largest loophole in the FMLA is that it is unpaid, so many workers who would want to take advantage of it to care for themselves or a family member, simply cannot afford to.

Workers have to make difficult choices between their careers and their caregiving responsibilities precisely when they need their paychecks the most, such as following the birth of a child or when they or a loved one falls ill. This lack of choice can often lead workers to not take any leave or cut their leave short; about 45% of FMLA-eligible workers did not take leave because they could not afford unpaid leave and among workers who took time off for caregiving responsibilities, about one-third of leave-takers cut their time off short due to lost wages.

Stopping at anything short of paid leave on the national level was a huge mistake. The United States is the only country among its peers and one of only a handful in the world that does not guarantee some amount of leave with pay. Because there is currently no national standard, each worker is left to the whims of individual company policies, which often means no paid family or medical leave at all. And, high wage workers are far more likely to have paid leave than middle or low wage workers. The disparities are stark, but even among the highest paid workers, only about one-fourth have paid family leave.

Fortunately, some states have stepped up and passed legislation to allow workers to earn paid family and medical leave. California (effective 2004), New Jersey (2009), Rhode Island (2014), New York (2018), and effective next year in Washington state, Washington, DC, and Massachusetts.

We need national paid family leave policy to support workers and their families across the country. It will level disparities between wage levels, and be more inclusive of all workers, regardless of firm size, work hours, or tenure, and include workers across the country.

Learn more about Ky Dickens’ Zero Weeks and learn how to get involved with the important advocacy of Family Values at Work.