Kirsten Gillibrand United States Senator for New York

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The American Opportunity Agenda: Expand Paid Family and Medical Leave

Since more often than not, women are the primary caregivers of infants, children, and elderly parents, we need to make it easier for them to go in and out of the workforce so they can meet those family needs, without fear of losing their paycheck.  One common sense need that must be addressed is access to paid family and medical leave. 

The current Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 provides unpaid, job-protected leave for serious health related events, but only about half of the workforce qualifies for this unpaid leave, and many more simply cannot afford to take it because it is unpaid.  Twenty years have passed and it is clear that this program needs to be updated to meet the current needs of a growing and aging population.

As workers with care responsibilities withdraw from the workforce, or limit their time at work, they bring home less income in the short run, are less likely to earn raises and promotions at the same pace as those without care responsibilities, have more restricted access to workplace retirement benefits, earn less in Social Security retirement benefits, and accumulate lower lifetime earnings. All of these factors combined leave too many American middle-class families today struggling throughout their working lives without adequate savings for retirement, while those families trying to enter the middle class can barely survive day to day. This is why it is critical to ensure workers and families can afford to care for their loved ones when family and medical needs arise.

The “Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act” or the FAMILY Act would create an independent trust fund within the Social Security Administration to collect fees and provide benefits. This trust would be funded by employee and employer contributions of 0.2 percent of wages each, creating a self-sufficient program that would not add to the federal budget. Benefit levels, based on existing successful state programs in New Jersey and California, would equal 66 percent of an individual’s typical monthly wages up to a capped monthly amount that would be indexed for inflation.  The proposal makes leave available to every individual regardless of the size of their current employer and regardless of whether such individual is currently employed by an employer, self-employed or currently unemployed, as long as the person has sufficient earnings and work history. In this way it would apply to young, part-time and low-wage workers.

For example, the average woman worker earning the median weekly wage would only need to contribute $1.38 per week (for a total of $72.04 per year) into the program, and even the highest wage earners would have a maximum contribution of $4.36 per week, or $227.40 per year. This means that for less than ONE tall brewed Starbucks coffee ($1.85) or about the cost of ONE venti latte per week (over $4) we could create a program that will be so beneficial for our families. The average full time working woman earning the median weekly wage would receive a total of $5,514.48 if she took the full 12 weeks of paid leave.  Operating the trust fund through the Social Security Administration would enable the program to capitalize on a number of administrative efficiencies thus decreasing the need to create new bureaucracies.

Creating such a program is common sense, fiscally responsible solution for those who are having a child, or attending to a medical crisis, and still need to provide for their families basic needs.

Download a copy of The American Opportunity Agenda here