The State of Paid Family Leave in the US

UPDATED: May 31, 2024
PUBLISHED: June 1, 2024
mother, father and new baby enjoy paid family leave

“We’re closed for paid leave.”

This is an out of office message that clients and customers may not have expected on March 18, when more than 70 brands closed to take a stand for paid medical and family leave. This was part of the efforts of Paid Leave for All, a national campaign looking to improve the United States’ currently bleak policies. More than a quarter of U.S. workers have access to paid family leave through an employer, and around only 43% have access to short-term disability insurance. Yet at some point, most people find themselves with a new baby, an aging relative or an unexpected injury or illness but don’t have the systemic support to financially handle it.

“Nearly one in four employed mothers have returned to work within two weeks of giving birth, and one in five retirees have left the workforce earlier than planned to care for an ill family member,” Paid Leave for All writes on their website. “It’s time to change that.”

So what is the status of the nationwide push to pass federal paid family and medical leave? Lake Research Partners conducted a survey on behalf of Paid Leave for All of 1,000 voters from battleground states and reported that 85% support paid leave. With such an overwhelming majority in favor, what’s taking so long?

It’s mostly legislation, as it turns out. But the organization has made significant progress so far.

“For the first time, we passed paid family and medical leave in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2021, and we were within a vote of it moving through the Senate to become law,” says Dawn Huckelbridge, founding director at Paid Leave for All in Washington, D.C. “We’ve secured the strongest budget proposals from the President for comprehensive paid leave in history. We’ve seen public opinion move to record highs. We have the first-ever bipartisan working group on paid leave in the House and Senate. The state and local wins keep multiplying, and our momentum is growing. So we often say, ‘It’s not a matter of if, but when,’ and we are building the political power to push this over the edge.”

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Taking a public stand on paid family leave

Getting vocal about the issue has involved company-wide pledges, such as the March 18 closures, to raise more awareness. Liz Turrigiano, co-founder and CEO of Esembly, is one of the leaders who chose to close that day, calling the issue “deeply important” to her as a mother.

“Being able to take time off to care for new babies or sick loved ones should be a basic human right,” she says. “And it’s not just the caregivers and babies taking the leave that benefit from having that time together—our entire society benefits as these children grow up after having that solid foundation. You shouldn’t have to be wealthy or work for a giant corporation in order for this to apply.”

Another participant, Melody Serafino, co-founder of No. 29 Communications, says, “It’s a no-brainer, and yet small businesses like ours are having to step in where [the] government has failed. With a team that is 99% women, how could I not push for this very critical policy? It would be unconscionable not to.”

Paid family leave faces legislative hurdles

Major policy changes in the federal government can feel frustratingly slow, especially for families that are taking leave after unpaid leave as they grow their families through the years or those who are encountering multiple family leave needs. 

“I’m hopeful about the push toward paid leave on the state level,” shares Daphne Delvaux, Esq., founder of Delvaux Law and co-founder of Chamber of Mothers. “More and more states are rolling out benefit programs and are expanding paid leave access. At the federal level, momentum is slow. It seems like lawmakers generally believe it’s a good idea, but it isn’t a priority right now. It’s hard to get any benefit programs passed at the federal level, even when the policy idea makes sense.”

Why is it so hard to pass a national benefits plan? It can “[seem] daunting to lawmakers,” Delvaux says. “They feel like it’s a new social program that may be expensive to the nation and cumbersome [for] employers. Many lawmakers prefer to keep these programs in the hands of the states and the private sector.” She adds that “many benefit programs and employment rights are currently decided and organized at the state level, and anti-federalist lawmakers would prefer to keep it that way instead of implementing a federal program.”

And of course, politics are at play as well. “The previous paid leave proposal failed because it was encapsulated in the Build Back Better package, which was a big funding initiative [composed] of many different elements [that] resulted in a lot of opposition by Republican lawmakers,” Delvaux says. “Paid leave needs to be introduced as a stand-alone bill.”

Given this, the United States is the only Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) country without a national paid leave policy and one of only six countries in the world that doesn’t guarantee any form of paid leave.

The current state of paid family leave

Until a law provides paid leave for new parents and caregivers, families continue to face substantial financial obstacles in these vulnerable and challenging times. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), a labor law that guarantees job security but not pay, lists the following employee requirements for eligibility:

  • Have worked for a company for at least one year
  • Worked at least 1,250 hours during that year (or approximately 156 days)
  • Live within 75 miles of the workplace 
  • Work for an employer who employs 50 or more employees for at least 20 weeks
    during the current or previous year

Only 56% of people are currently eligible for FMLA, the National Partnership for Women & Families reports. Those who do have options for paid leave within the private sector might face additional pressure to come back to work promptly, though it varies by company culture. 

Delvaux has some tips for new parents in the meantime. “Moms have to look into their state rights and programs. Too many parents leave money on the table because they assume they have no paid leave, even though they live in a paid leave state,” she says. “Moms that don’t live in a paid leave state can negotiate for paid leave or can request paid leave as an accommodation under the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which is a federal right American moms have access to.”

Different states in the U.S. have various laws in regards to paid leave options. To date, 13 states and Washington, D.C., have laws that create paid family leave programs for workers.

Perks of paid leave for businesses

Still not convinced? Some companies are worried about their bottom lines and how much they’ll have to pay to support employees. But a 2021 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that paid family leave improved outcomes for small businesses in New York, including decreasing turnover costs from greater retention rates, as caregivers are able to keep working rather than quit their jobs to care for others. 

Less stress from the financial burden of unpaid leave may also result in more productive and satisfied employees. In New Jersey, for example, employers said that the state’s paid leave program reduced stress and improved employee morale. Finally, companies that aren’t on board with such policies and aren’t offering them currently might become less competitive in the workforce.

What you can do

“Please do join us,” Huckelbridge asks. “Follow us on social platforms, sign our petition (we are so close to our goal) at and, most importantly, ask every elected official who represents you—and every candidate who wants to—exactly what they’re doing to pass paid leave. It will take that scale of accountability to get this done.”

Photo by Halfpoint/