06/20/2014 01:29 pm ET Updated Aug 20, 2014

It's Time to Upgrade the Family and Medical Leave Act

When the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was signed into law, there was much rejoicing. After all, it took more than nine years for those of us pushing for passage to prevail. A landmark bill, the FMLA provides up to three months of job-protected leave to workers taking time off to tend to a family medical problem, their own medical needs, or to care for a new baby. It has been used over 100 million times in its 21-year history. FMLA applies to public agencies, including public schools and local, state, and federal employers, and to private employers of 50 or more.

But the truth is that while job security is certainly helpful to those needing a temporary break from work, the fact that the leave granted is unpaid makes using it untenable for many who are most in need. Only 12 percent of workers have paid leave available through an employer, leaving the rest of us in a bind. The absence of paid leave has left too many workers forced to choose between, for example, caring for a sick parent with cancer or paying the rent -- it's as basic as that.

Aside from the personal, there is a wider economic impact caused by the lost job or lost wages that accompany unpaid leave. Dollars not earned and not spent slow down growth and job creation for everyone. For those living on the economic edge, a loss of income can start a spiral into debt or poverty that is very difficult to reverse and adversely affects whole communities. Low-wage workers -- the majority of whom are women -- are already the least likely to have access to paid leave and are often most in need of financial resources when a family or medical need arises. Nearly half of workers in the lowest quarter of income earners have no paid leave of any kind; in contrast, 94 percent of those in the highest paid quartile have at least one type of paid leave.

Paid leave isn't welfare. It isn't a government handout. It's a much needed bridge to provide partial wages to workers when they face inevitable demands of family crises or life events. The proposed Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, or FAMILY Act, would provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave each year to qualifying workers for the birth or adoption of a new child, the serious illness of an immediate family member, military leave, or a worker's own medical condition. Workers could apply for benefits up to two-thirds of their typical monthly wages. Put forward by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), the FAMILY Act would establish a self-sustaining fund through employee and employer payroll contributions of just 0.2 percent of wages, or two cents for every $10 earned. The money would go into an independent trust fund within the Social Security Administration that would collect fees and provide benefits. The average contribution would amount to approximately $2 per week per worker from a worker's paycheck. This fund would provide workers at every business -- no matter the size, number of employees, or hours worked -- with the security that an emergency or life event will force them out of a job or into poverty.

As we prepare for the White House Summit on Working Families June 23, with its focus on creating a 21st century workplace that works for all Americans, we need to put paid family and medical leave high on the agenda. It's time to provide the programs that today's workers and their families need to succeed -- and that we need to achieve the just and humane society we all strive for.