White House Summit on Working Families: Possible Changes to Federal Leave Laws

White House Summit on Working Families: Possible Changes to Federal Leave Laws

According to the United Nations, out of 185 countries and territories with available information, the United States is one of the only three countries in the world, along with Papa New Guinea and Oman, lacking paid maternity leave.  Most developed countries provide both paid maternity and paternity leave, and paid family and sick leave.  Countries that provide generous paid maternity leave include Spain, who provides 16 weeks of fully paid maternity leave, Denmark, who provides for 18 weeks, and Norway who provides for 35 weeks of fully paid leave, and 45 weeks of leave at 80 percent of the employee’s wages.  To address the issue of paid maternity leave and other issues facing working parents, on June 23, 2014, the White House hosted a Summit on Working Families.

Current federal leave law, the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) provides eligible employees up to twelve weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for the employee’s own serious health condition, the serious health condition of an employee’s child, parent, or spouse, and for the birth of a child.  But, the current law only covers about 60 percent of American workers, and even the workers who are eligible to take the leave often cannot afford to take unpaid leave for those three months.  In an effort to provide better protection to working families and bring the U.S.’s laws in accord with other developed nations, President Obama used the White House Summit to push lawmakers to pass two bills currently pending in Congress.

The New Proposals

First, Obama encouraged lawmakers to pass the FAMILY Act, which would provide up to twelve weeks of paid, rather than unpaid leave.  Employees would be eligible to collect benefits equal to 66 percent of their typical monthly wages, with a capped monthly maximum amount of $1,000 per week.  Similar to California’s Paid Family Leave (“PFL”), which expanded the State Disability Insurance system in California, the FAMILY Act would create a fund within the Social Security Administration to collect fees and provide benefits.  As is the case with Social Security, employees would have to pay into the system to collect benefits.

Second, President Obama also urged lawmakers to pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which would require employers to make certain accommodations for pregnant women that allow them to keep their jobs.  Introduced into the Senate by Sen. Jean Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), the Act would require employers to make the same type of reasonable accommodations for pregnant women that current law requires them to make for people with disabilities.  The Act also would forbid employers from forcing employees to take paid or unpaid leave rather than offering a reasonable accommodation.

Finally, President Obama announced his proposal for a Presidential Memorandum that directs all federal agencies to implement existing workplace flexibility initiatives and institutes a new “right to request” flexible work policy.  This policy follows the lead of initiatives like San Francisco’s Family Friendly Workplace Ordinance (FFWO), which gives employees the right to request a flexible work arrangement without the fear of retaliation.

This White House Summit comes a few months prior to midterm elections and many commentators have viewed it as part of a drive to garner the votes of women.  In any case, the summit has invigorated the conversation of the proper legal benefits for working parents.  As midterm elections approach, both employers and employees should keep a close eye to see if Congress passes the FAMILY Act and the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act.  If so, the U.S. would join the path of other nations in creating more family-friendly workplaces.