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Paid Family Leave: The Basics

The Brief

Paid family leave is a “kitchen table” issue for millions of American families—increasingly, it is also an issue where Democrats and Republicans alike believe meaningful progress is possible. This is the first in a series of fact sheets that BPC has developed to help inform the debate.

Last updated January 28, 2022.

What is Paid Family Leave?

Paid family leave is compensated time away from work for specific and significant caregiving needs. While existing policies vary, there are generally three qualifying reasons for paid family leave:

  • Parental Leave—Time to bond with a newborn, newly adopted, or newly fostered child. This includes paternity and maternity leave.
  • Family Caregiver Leave—Time to care for a qualifying family member with an illness or injury.
  • Medical Leave—Time to recover from a personal health issue that makes the employee unable to work for a short period of time.

What Paid Family Leave Laws Exist across the U.S.?

Currently, nine states and the District of Columbia have enacted paid family leave programs. California, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Washington have active programs. Colorado and Oregon enacted policies, but their programs are not yet in effect. While the details of these programs vary (see BPC’s fact sheet on State Paid Family Leave Laws Across the U.S.), they all cover parental and family caregiving leave and are funded by a payroll tax on employees, employers, or both.

Who Has Access to Paid Family Leave?

Outside of the states with paid family leave programs, paid family leave is not widely available in the U.S. As of 2021, 77% of American workers lacked access to an employer-provided paid parental or family caregiving leave benefit, and 60% lacked access to personal medical leave. Moreover, these benefits are not distributed equally. Employees working for companies with more than 500 workers were twice as likely to receive paid family leave benefits as those working for companies with fewer than 50 workers, while the top 10% of wage earners were nearly six times more likely to have paid family leave than the lowest 10% of wage earners. 1

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Access to Paid Family Leave by Wage Quartiles, March 2021

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. National Compensation Survey: Employee Benefits in the United States, March 2021. Tables 17 and 33. September 2021. Available at: https://www.bls.gov/ncs/ebs/benefits/2021/home.htm.
Lowest 25 percent Second 25 percent Third 25 percent Highest 25 percent
Paid parental and family caregiver leave 12 % 22 % 26 % 35 %
Paid medical leave 20 % 40 % 46 % 56 %

Access to Paid Leave by Number of Employees, March 2021

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. National Compensation Survey: Employee Benefits in the United States, March 2021. Tables 17 and 33. September 2021. Available at: https://www.bls.gov/ncs/ebs/benefits/2021/home.htm.
1 to 49 workers 50 to 99 workers 100 to 499 workers 500 workers or more
Paid parental and family caregiver leave 16 % 20 % 29 % 32 %
Paid medical leave 28 % 36 % 47 % 53 %

How Are Other Types of Paid Leave Benefits Used When Paid Family Leave Is Not Available?

Without access to a defined paid leave benefit, workers often use other benefits—or combinations of benefits—to receive compensation while on parental, family caregiving, or medical leave. In 2018, about 66% of workers who took FMLA cobbled together other forms of leave to cover caregiving needs. Of those who received pay, 70% used sick leave, 60% used vacation days, 8% used a state paid family leave benefit, and 30% used temporary disability insurance. Additionally, while low-wage and middle- to high-wage workers took leave for family and medical reasons at similar rates (18% vs. 14%), low-wage workers were least likely to receive any pay (39%) compared to their middle- and high-wage counterparts (80%).2

How Does Paid Family Leave Differ from Other Types of Leave?

Paid family leave is designed to support extended periods away from work when the employee intends to return to the workplace. Paid family leave is not paid vacation or sick leave. As we have noted, however, many workers without access to paid family leave turn to vacation, sick leave, or other forms of paid time off when caregiving or medical needs arise.

Many workers also have access to unpaid, job protected leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and other state leave laws. (See The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA): The Basics and State FMLA and Job-Protection Leave Laws Across the U.S.)

End Notes:


1 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. National Compensation Survey: Employee Benefits in the United States, March 2021. Tables 17 and 33. September 2021. Available at: https://www.bls.gov/ncs/ebs/benefits/2021/home.htm.
2 Abt Associates, Assessing FMLA: Results from 2018 Surveys, September 2020. Available at: https://www.abtassociates.com/insights/publications/report/assessing-fmla-results-from-2018-surveys

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