What Is the Difference Between FMLA and Paid Family Leave?


Family leave is a hot topic. After all, the pandemic forced Americans to recognize shortcomings in some of the benefits available to workers. Many, who needed time off to care for sick family members, realized that effective family leave policies were lacking in the United States. HR has been trying to address the problem in some cases. 

To begin making decisions about family leave, HR professionals need to understand and educate others about the differences between the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and paid family leave (PFL).  

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What Is the Family and Medical Leave Act? 

The U.S. Department of Labor explains that the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) means that “eligible employees of covered employers” can take up to 12 weeks in a 12-month period of unpaid leave for:

  • The birth of a child or care for a newborn under 1 year old
  • Placement with a child for adoption or foster care (within one year of placement)
  • Care for the employees’ spouse, child, or parent with a serious health condition
  • A serious health condition that prevents the employee from doing his or her job

There are additional possibilities for leave for those caring for a spouse, son, daughter, or parent who are active duty military or covered active duty military. Those caring for injured servicemembers who qualify can take up to 26 weeks of leave during a 12-month period. 

READ: HR Guide to DEI: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

What Is Paid Family Leave (PFL)?

Some companies provide paid family leave, which means they offer at least a percentage of pay for a designated number of weeks in a 12-month period for giving birth or becoming a parent, adopting or providing foster care, caring for certain family members who may be ill or injured, or being in one of those military categories. Often, these options are available to those with full-time positions in professional roles in the private sector.

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Some U.S. states provide some form of paid family leave. Delaware is one of the most recent states to sign PFL into law. California has offered its Paid Family Leave Program since 2004. In 2009, New Jersey began its Family Leave Insurance Program. New York, Rhode Island, and Washington state are among the others with paid family leave options. HR leaders should know or be able to access the laws that are relevant to their employees. Different states have different criteria and parameters around leave.  

Still, for many people working in the United States, family leave is simply not possible. Employees can pursue help through their employer, state, and the federal government. If the state and their employer do not provide PFL, then they may not be able to afford unpaid national leave even if they need it.

How Is PFL Part of DEI?

In March 2021, 23% of civilian workers had access to paid family leave, and 89% had access to unpaid family leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics

The most vulnerable are often left with no options. The United States also does not offer universal healthcare, which complicates matters for families on a budget. Those who are seeking leave because of health problems, which are often costly, must hang onto their job to afford care.

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Women, in particular, suffer from a lack of paid leave. They account for as much as 75% of unpaid caregivers, according to the Institute on Aging. They tend to be the caretakers in their families, the ones who tend to children and the elderly or ill. As a result, during the pandemic, women left the workforce in record numbers. Many employers are still trying to recoup the loss in both representation and talent. 

In fact, paid family leave can help bring women back into the workforce. The March of Dimes Center for Social Science Research with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) found that 20% fewer women quit when there are paid leave policies available to them. 

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This kind of benefit also plays into an organization’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategy because it can help women, who already face a steep pay gap by keeping them on the team, while recognizing their life and obligations outside work. Men also gain from paid family leave. They can take paternity leave or care for ill or injured relatives, too, and they share the burden with women.  

HR leaders considering paid family leave must consider all factors, including the needs of their unique team, the cost and allotted budget, and the details of their offerings. They should also educate themselves on the laws in the state of residence of their employees. Of course, they must learn about the FMLA to ensure a comprehensive understanding of what’s available to their employees. 

To learn more about diversity, equity, and inclusion, watch the HR Exchange Network’s DEI online event on demand

Photo by Andre Furtado for Pexels

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