Family, medical leave should not be an ‘FML’

Family and medical leave policies in the United States have historically been inadequate, especially compared with those of other countries, such as the United Kingdom.

New York recently took a step toward the international standard of family and medical leave by passing a law as part of its March 31 budget that entitles full-time and part-time workers to 12 weeks of paid leave if they have been with a business for at least six months, according to an April 1 New York Magazine article.

The plan will begin in 2018 with a guarantee of 8 weeks’ leave at 50 percent salary, reaching the full 12 weeks’ leave at 67 percent salary in 2021, according to an April 1 article from Vox.com.

Like its federal predecessor, the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993, the New York law recognizes that both men and women need to have the opportunity to take time off to bond with a newborn, adopted or foster child or  to care for a sick parent or relative.

But having the right to take time off and being able to afford to do so are different things. With the unpaid federal policy, those who qualified for leave often failed to take advantage of it because of the financial hardship.

The New York law has been criticized as unfair because it does not offer exemptions for small businesses. In other family and medical leave policies that have required contributions from employers, small businesses have said the policies would drive them under.

“[Small business owners] look like we are somehow pitted against the very people we day in and day out support with a paycheck,” said Small Business Commission Chair Mark Dwight, founder and CEO of Rickshaw Bagworks, in a March 30 article from The San Francisco Examiner. 

The proposed policy in San Francisco about which Dwight was speaking, would require businesses with 20 or more workers to fund 45 percent of pay for six weeks of family and medical leave. Small business leaders criticized this, citing it as another mandate small businesses have to overcome in order to stay afloat.

The policy in New York will not use taxpayer or employer money but will instead be based on an insurance model in which employees pay approximately one dollar per paycheck, according to the Vox.com article.

The policy raises some concerns about fraud and systemic abuse. Similar programs such as worker’s compensation, carry the risk of fraudulent claims. However, the benefits of providing such a program far outweigh the risk of abuse.

The Working Families Task Force in Chicago released recommendations April 4 for reforming sick leave policies in Chicago, which included allowing people to accumulate sick days and put them toward family and medical leave. This policy is obviously not as advanced as New York’s, but it does spark a discussion about policy reform. 

Reforming family and medical leave policies is necessary, and New York’s policy could be used as a model for such reform. As the most progressive policy in the United States right now, it raises the standard for other states’ policies.

Taking steps to reform policies on a city and state level is beneficial, but only to some. Every worker in the United States should be guaranteed the same opportunity to have both a rewarding work life and family life.

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