There are many reasons why I’m nervous to enter the “real” world after graduating at the end of April. I’m not sure if I’m picking the right career, I could use some help learning how to effectively budget my finances and, to be completely honest, I have no idea how to pay taxes.
However, something that I shouldn’t have to worry about is whether, after finally getting hired, I can afford to keep my job if I get sick or have to care for a family member who unexpectedly falls ill.
It may not be the most exciting issue, but it fundamentally impacts us as young people who, if not already working, are about to dive into a full-time job. Guaranteed paid leave is vital for millennials’ economic security and for a stronger U.S. economy. Though more than 20 years ago the federal Family and Medical Leave Act took an important first step toward a more equitable workplace by supporting employees through unexpected work/life challenges, the law didn’t go far enough.
The FMLA, which requires employers to provide unpaid, job-protected leave for employees addressing family and medical issues, inevitably excludes about 40 percent of the workforce with its stringent eligibility requirements. And though the FMLA’s guaranteed unpaid leave benefits many families, not all employees can afford to take the unpaid time off. By itself, the FMLA fails to provide the resources that many workers, especially millennial workers such as ourselves, need to take leave without the risk of losing our jobs.
The FMLA’s strict eligibility requirements disproportionately impact young workers, who oftentimes haven’t been employed for long enough to qualify for unpaid sick leave. To qualify, workers must have at least 12 months of tenure with their employers, must have worked at least 1,250 hours in the previous year and also must work for an employer who employs at least 50 people within a 75-mile radius of the employee’s work site. It’s undeniable that these requirements cut out many part-time and newer workers from guaranteed unpaid leave — both groups with “a disproportionate number“of millennials.
And for many employees, unpaid leave is simply not economically feasible. As millennials, we face higher rates of poverty, lower incomes and more student loan debt than older generations did at our age. This means that many young workers can’t afford to take unpaid leave, even if they qualify for it. When workers absolutely must take leave for a medical emergency, even if they can’t afford the time off, they’re forced to sacrifice income needed to pay bills, buy groceries and support families. According to a 2015 report by the U.S. Department of Labor, 60 percent of workers without fully paid sick leave reported “difficulty making ends meet,” with many reporting “drawing down savings and cutting leave short.”
However, access to paid leave doesn’t just support individuals during a time of crisis, it also helps build an economy that benefits us all. Paid leave reduces the need for public assistance benefits: Working parents with access to paid leave are 39 percent less likely to receive public assistance, such as food stamps, than those who can’t or don’t take leave, according to the afformentioned DOL study.
Right now, Washington’s Republican leadership is squarely standing in the way of incredibly popular federal paid leave legislation that would benefit millions of workers nationwide. The United States is the only industrialized country without any sort of paid leave codified in government policy — and people are starting to notice.
Even conservative leadership can’t stop the new momentum on paid leave that’s moving across the country. Just in the past two years, private businesses and state governments have introduced numerous progressive work/life policies that support workers and create a more egalitarian work environment. It’s time that the state of Michigan joins in these efforts and that we, as millennials poised to enter the workplace, are cohesively supporting the push.
Joining the “real world” means joining an environment where policies like paid leave tangibly and directly impact us. For the nearly one in five undergrads who work at least 35 hours per week year-round, the palpable absence of these policies has already demonstrated why we need them. Eventually, we must catch up with the rest of the world and pass federal legislation guaranteeing paid leave for all American workers. But for now, advocating state legislation to address the one million Michigan workers currently without access to paid sick leave isn’t a bad place to start.
Anne Katz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.