June 2014, Helene Jorgensen and Eileen Appelbaum

The United States is the only high-income country that does not mandate paid family and medical leave. Instead American workers rely on a patchwork of employer-provided benefits, private insurance, state programs, public assistance, and savings to make ends meet during a leave event. About 30 percent of private-sector employees taking unpaid leave incur debt as result of their leave. More than 2.5 million employees cannot afford to take leave to care for self, a family member with a serious health condition, during pregnancy, to bond with a new child, or to care for an injured military service member every year.

Our analysis of the Department of Labor’s 2012 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) Survey found that 12.6 percent of private-sector employees took family and medical leave in 2012, while 4.5 percent had unmet leave needs. This means that one-in-four employees needing leave had their leave needs unmet in the past 12 months. Not being able to afford unpaid leave (49.4 percent) and the risk of loss of job (18.3 percent) were the two most common reasons given for not taking needed leave. Employees with children living at home and female employees had the greatest need for leave, but also had the highest rates of unmet leave.

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