When Our Protectors Are Unprotected: The Fight for Paid Leave Laws That Honor Military Families

Consider this: who is your family? For some, family is a parent, a sibling, an aunt or uncle; for others, family is a significant other, a best friend, a non-biological child. Now consider this: would you be able to take leave from work to care for your family members if they had a health-related need? Would they be able to take care of you if you had a health emergency? Every year, millions of workers throughout the U.S. find themselves having to answer these questions, and inevitably, many of them, including many military families, find that they don’t have the paid leave rights that they need.

Across the country, the need for paid family and medical leave is increasingly prevalent, especially as our nation continues to grapple with the long-term effects of COVID-19. And the need for paid family and medical leave among military families specifically is even greater. Like civilian families, military families endure life’s challenges such as long-term illness, a new child, or the need to care for a family member. But military families also face unique challenges like deployments and frequent moves.

Twenty-eight years ago, the U.S. passed landmark legislation that would provide eligible workers with time off work to care for themselves and select family members: the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Since its passage, the FMLA has been expanded to provide leave in connection with a family member’s deployment and additional leave for military caregivers. However, only 56% of employees in the U.S. are eligible for FMLA leave because of restrictive eligibility requirements, requirements that are especially likely to exclude military spouses. The FMLA also only provides unpaidleave, so many workers who may technically be eligible for FMLA leave cannot afford to use it. Finally, the FMLA only allows workers time off to care for a seriously ill parent, minor child, or spouse, with only slightly broader family caregiving options for military caregivers, carving out loved ones that workers might hold most dear. In response to overwhelming public need and support, the federal government is currently considering establishing a national paid family and medical leave program, which may include protections for military families.

At A Better Balance, we work with states across the country that recognize that workers need paid time off to care for themselves and their family members without having to worry about their jobs or economic security. Thus far, nine states (RI, CA, NJ, NY, WA, MA, CT, OR, CO) and Washington, D.C. have passed paid family and medical leave laws, which generally provide workers with paid leave from work when they or their family members are seriously ill or to bond with a new child. Among these laws, a growing number now include paid leave for military family needs in connection with deployment. Six of the states with paid family and medical leave laws include deployment-related needs — beginning, with New York in 2018, followed by Washington State in 2020. Military families in California and Massachusetts recently gained access to paid leave for this purpose in January 2021 — Connecticut will follow in 2022 and Colorado in 2024.

Importantly, the jurisdictions with paid family and medical leave laws go beyond the limited family definition in the FMLA and have a more realistic idea of what families in the U.S. look like. Which family members are covered under paid family and medical leave laws is of particular importance for military and veteran families. Many current and former members of the armed forces who were injured or ill as a result of their military service rely on friends or neighbors for care — those who were ill or injured as a result of their service after September 11, 2001 are nearly twice as likely as their civilian counterparts to rely on care from friends and neighbors. Moreover, as a result of their family’s service, many military family members are living far from family, which may make them especially likely to rely on other loved ones for care. All ten jurisdictions with paid family and medical leave laws cover care for workers’ seriously ill parents, spouses, domestic partners, children, grandparents, and parents-in-law, while nearly all include siblings and grandchildren. New Jersey, Connecticut, Oregon, Colorado, and Washington honor the breadth of today’s families and allow workers leave to care for all their closest loved ones, whether biologically related or not, such as a close friend or neighbor, with other states looking to follow their lead to include loved ones who may not be legally or biologically related.

As the momentum for inclusive paid family and medical leave policies grows nationwide, policy advocates and lawmakers must remember to repay our nation’s heroes by ensuring that they and their families don’t find themselves unprotected. Tell Congress we need bold, inclusive paid leave for all.

We use the power of the law to advance justice for workers caring for themselves and their loved ones. (learn more at abetterbalance.org)