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Arizona — among other states — is taking up the mantle to pass paid family medical leave

Arizona Democrats have introduced a bill that would create a paid family and medical leave system in our state — so a new mother could stay home with a newborn and be paid, or a son could stay home with an elderly parent who’s sick — and be paid. It’s a long shot in a GOP-run state legislature, but there is growing momentum for paid leave measures around the country. 

Right now, without a statewide paid leave policy, we fall under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which turns 31 this month. That means you’re entitled to 12 weeks off to take care of a family member and your employer can’t fire you. But, they don’t have to pay you for it, either. 

And new data from the National Partnership for Women and Families show 75% of workers in Arizona don’t have access to paid leave. And 66% can’t afford or can’t access that FMLA coverage. 

The Show spoke with Sharita Gruberg with the National Partnership for Women and Families more about it.

SHARITA GRUBERG: 31 years ago, we were in a very different place. It was really hard for our policymakers to conceive of a national program where workers could take time off of work to care for themselves or their loved ones and still have a job to return to. It took many years to get it across the finish line and enacted into law. And now 31 years later, it's hard to imagine a world without the FMLA. We've had over 460 million leaves taken under this important protection.

LAUREN GILGER: This was meant to be, it sounds like at the time, sort of a first step like it wasn't supposed to be the end, all be all when it came to family and medical leave, right? 

GRUBERG: Exactly. It was never intended to be the end result. It was just supposed to be a first step and you can see that in terms of today who has access to leave under the FMLA versus, you know, who just can't afford to take unpaid leave off for long periods of time.

GILGER: Yeah. So tell us a little bit more about that. Like many people are left out of this equation, first of all, like you say, because it's unpaid and most people cannot afford to take a lot of unpaid time off. But also there are lots of people who don't even qualify for FMLA, right.

GRUBERG: Right. And so looking at Arizona in particular, even unpaid leave under the Family Medical Leave Act is inaccessible for 66% of Arizonans. And so that means over half of the workers in the state can't even access unpaid leave. The numbers are even worse for access to paid leave. We just put out new data today finding that about 80% of working people in Arizona. That translates to around 2,893,000 workers don't have access to paid family leave through their employers.

GILGER: Wow. OK, OK. So the argument that you'll often hear that like we don't need the government to cover this as employers cover, this doesn't quite hold water.

GRUBERG: Yeah. And when we, we also published data, looking at employer provision of paid leave over time and it's been a pretty steady line. The way it looks is the employers that are inclined to provide this for their workers and more importantly, can afford to, which tends to squeeze out a lot of small- and medium-sized businesses that just can't afford it without a bigger program, they're already providing it. The tax credits, other incentives that have been tried to encourage businesses to provide this haven't really moved the needle to cover more people.

GILGER: So things do seem to be changing at least on a state level today and in recent years, I know you're a part of that effort, your organization does work on this front clearly. But I wonder if you can sort of put this into context for us, like how many states seem to be adopting and putting into place their own kind of paid family leave laws to make up for this gap.

GRUBERG: The momentum has been tremendous. California was the first state to enact a paid family medical leave program. But in the years since many states have followed its lead, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic. We've seen a lot of momentum in states realizing that it's just not possible to expect all your workers to never get sick, to never have a need to take time off of work. And that it's in the best interest for workers, for businesses, for the economy of the state to create a comprehensive program for all workers in their states. Today, we have 14 states including Washington ,D.C., they have comprehensive paid family medical leave programs for the workers in their states. And you know, California's program has existed for about 20 years now. We've seen that these programs are sustainable, they're able to meet the needs of workers. Businesses have not been harmed by them. In fact, they really report some positive benefits. And so we've seen a ton of momentum and even in this year are expecting even more states to pass paid family medical leave policies. 

GILGER: So let's talk about how these programs are paid for this kind of thing. Arizona as a measure, a bill introduced by rats in the state legislature here to do this. They're a minority party in our state that kind of rarely gets to move its own legislation forward. But the bill here would create a statewide paid family and medical leave program would be funded by both the employer and employee contributions. Is that a common approach, like how do most states fund this?

GRUBERG: That is pretty common. It tends to be, you know, a social insurance policy model where the workers and the employers pay in, and the amount of contributions tends to be pretty manageable and pretty small. We had hearing in front of the Senate Finance Committee a few months back, and there was a farmer from Oregon where they have a state program in place. That's a similar model of contributions from the employer and the employee, this farmer was saying that it was pretty minimal, the amount that he had to put in and compared it to routine maintenance of a truck. 

GILGER: I'm sure that's a lot of the pushback you get though politically and also in the business world, right? That you don't want to put extra costs on employers, particularly small businesses who don't have large margins to work with.

GRUBERG: Right, but we see on the flip side that without, you know, these state programs or without a national program, small businesses tend to not have the resources to be able to afford to provide this benefit otherwise.

GILGER: What is happening on the national front? There was talk of some movement on this in Congress to try to get a federal law passed. Is that stalled.

GRUBERG: It's not stalled. In fact, I think we've seen increasing interest from unlikely partners since we got the closest that we've come with Build Back Better to a national program. And so, you know, we were one vote away from a national paid family medical leave program under Build Back Better and rather than losing all of that progress, we've seen gains since then and increased momentum and interest and it's not just among Democrats. There are two bipartisan working groups in Congress right now. One on the house side and one on the Senate side. We also have legislation. The Family Act is in the House and the Senate and that follows some of the best principles that stakeholders and have come up with and that we've seen from the state examples of what a really strong national policy would need to look like to cover as many folks as possible.

GILGER: A lot to watch for on that front. That is Sharita Gruberg, vice president for economic justice at the National Partnership for Women and families, joining us to talk more about paid family leave efforts here and around the country. Sharita, thank you for coming on. I appreciate you taking the time.

GRUBERG: Thanks so much for having me.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.