The study’s finding was concentrated among women with 12 or fewer years of education. Many women without college education work in low-paying jobs that don’t offer paid family leave benefits, Rossin-Slater said, so “in the absence of having a state-level program, these women by and large are left to kind of fend for themselves.”
Paid family leave didn’t have a meaningful impact on whether men stayed in their jobs if their spouses with a health condition had a major health event. Regardless of whether they had access to paid family leave, less than half of 1% of men in the study reported leaving their job to care for a family member or their home, Rossin-Slater said. “Just very few men do that, and so perhaps then it's not surprising that (paid family leave) doesn't really affect them,” she said.
Priyanka Anand, a health economist at George Mason University who has also studied the impacts of paid family leave, said she liked the research, particularly because it focuses on non-parental uses of paid leave, which has gotten little attention from researchers. There are strengths to the data the researchers used, she said, but one drawback is a relatively small number of people who actually had access to paid family leave: While more than 2,700 healthy spouses were in the sample, only 237 of them had access to paid family leave.
Some people are hesitant to take leave because they’re worried they might lose their job, or that they’ll be the first to go in future layoffs, or they’ll get passed over for raises or promotions, said Christina Irving, director of client services at San Francisco-based Family Caregiver Alliance.
In 2020, state lawmakers expanded job protections for people who take leave. Now, if you work at a company with five or more employees and meet work hour requirements, you can take unpaid leave to take care of a family member and be legally protected from losing your job. Previously, job protections generally covered people working at companies with at least 50 people at or near the worksite. Many people get both job protection and some pay during their leave, but the laws providing those two benefits are separate.
“Generally, folks are very concerned about how they can make sure that they keep their jobs,” said Katherine Wutchiett, a senior staff attorney at Legal Aid at Work, a San Francisco non-profit that provides legal services to low-income workers. “If they have a spouse who's facing a long term disability and will be out of work, they might be the sole source of income for their family for the first time, making it all that more important that they're able to keep their job,” she said.
More change is coming in 2025, when lower-income workers will get to keep 90% of their paycheck when they take paid family leave. Currently, workers get 60% to 70% of their wages when they take leave. Advocates pushed for the increase, saying that many low income workers couldn’t afford to take leave when it came with a large pay cut.
Another barrier to getting paid family leave is understanding what you’re eligible for and how, exactly, to get the benefits. Legal Aid at Work runs a hotline for people who have questions about paid leave and other workplace accommodations, or need help with the process. It gets over 1,000 calls per year, according to Wutchiett.
Some version of paid family leave has been in place for nearly two decades. Yet, there's still a need for lawyers who can help people through the process, said Rossin-Slater. That reflects negatively on how the program is being run, she said. “Ideally, people shouldn't have to turn to a lawyer in order to be able to just access this benefit.”