Democrats have used the coronavirus to point to why the U.S. needs a government-paid family leave program (such as the FAMILY Act), so that employees can take time off from their jobs without losing much-needed paychecks.
Well, in Washington state (which has the most reported coronavirus cases in the U.S. thus far), “It’s Here. It’s Yours.”—government-paid family leave, that is.
According to the Washington state government website, the state’s paid family and medical leave program is supposed to be “here for you when a serious health condition prevents you from working or when you need time to care for a family member, bond with a new child, or spend time with a family member preparing for military service overseas.”
In reality, the program is failing thousands of workers with serious medical conditions and life events, and it can’t do a thing for people with the coronavirus.
For starters, there’s a waiting period before you can apply. As the program’s website explains: “Your ‘waiting week’ is the first week you are approved to file a weekly claim, and you will not be paid for that week.”
Although it can take up to two weeks before an infected person experiences symptoms of the coronavirus, symptoms are unlikely to last more than a week, meaning most coronavirus infections wouldn’t qualify for benefits.
As with most government programs, there’s also an administrative waiting period. Once an employee has a qualifying condition for at least a week and submits all the required medical documentation and forms, benefits are supposed to kick in within 30 days (assuming the worker is approved for benefits).
But Washington’s program has experienced three times its expected demand, and the current backlog has workers waiting up to 10 weeks before they receive benefits.
The average worker doesn’t have enough savings to wait 10 weeks until their benefits show up. And most low-income workers would have a hard time waiting even a week.
Nurse Jessica Jackson of Tacoma, Washington, had to take out a loan to cover her bills because it’s been seven weeks since her daughter was born, and she still hasn’t receive any benefits.
Jackson’s need for leave was anticipated. The reality is that many leaves that Americans need to take are not anticipated.
In fact, only about 1 out of every 5 leaves in the U.S. is for the easily anticipated birth or adoption of a child. Many of the other leaves workers take for their own medical conditions and to care of family members are not expected.
The events that cause workers to need to take leave from work are often stressful and emotional. The last thing most workers want to do in those situations is to have to deal with a government bureaucracy.
It’s much easier for employees to request time off from their boss than to follow a government program’s procedures, including waiting a week before they can apply for time off, obtaining the necessary medical documentation, providing the required notification to their employer, filling out all the government paperwork, and then waiting an indefinite amount of time for their benefits to kick in.
While one-size-fits-all government programs are burdensome and impersonal, employer-provided policies are often more generous, flexible, and accommodating.
For example, an employer may allow a worker to take time off intermittently to care for a loved one with cancer and to work remotely as needed. A government program couldn’t do that, as workers would have to take specified periods of leave and could not do any work while on leave.
The good news for workers in the U.S. is that there’s been significant growth in voluntary, employer-provided paid family leave over the past few years. And a lot of that growth is occurring among lower-wage employees at large companies such as Walmart, Chipotle, Lowes, Starbucks, and Target.
Providing paid family leave is in a lot of companies’ best interest because it helps them attract and retain the employees they need.
And allowing—even paying—workers who have the coronavirus or any other contagious illness to stay home is also in employers’ best interest because if they don’t, they risk significant workplace disruptions and a loss of income.
There’s often a rush to turn to the government for solutions to all sorts of needs. But when it comes to paid family leave, government programs would fail to meet many workers’ needs and would cost far more than workers are willing to pay.
A government program would be useless for employees with the coronavirus, and more importantly, it would fail to meet most low-income workers’ needs.