Recent data demonstrate that a significant fraction of the population lacks access to leave policies, especially paid leave.

According to a recent survey of employees, 77 percent of workers report having some ability to take unpaid leave. Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) can take unpaid leave if they have an illness, and 60 percent can do so for the birth of a child.

Only 53 percent of workers report being able to take some type of paid leave for their own illness and only 39 percent report being able to take some type of paid family leave for the birth of a child. More workers report access to paid leave then employers report providing it—only 11 percent of workers are covered by formal paid family leave policies according to employers. The gap between workers’ and employers’ reports suggests that informal arrangements with managers and the use of other forms of leave, like paid vacation, may currently be playing an important role.

There are large disparities in access to paid leave across groups, with access to paid leave being particularly low among Hispanics, less educated workers, and low wage workers. Taking into account this “benefits gap,” inequality in total compensation between more and less advantaged groups is even greater than inequality in income alone.

The composition of the workforce has drastically changed over the last half-century. Almost half of the workforce is now women, married couples are increasingly sharing childcare responsibilities, and people are living—and working—longer than in the past. Given the growing number of dual-earner families, today’s workers are trying to balance work, childcare, and eldercare, as well as other responsibilities. In particular, families increasingly need to take time off around the birth or adoption of a child, for their own medical needs, or
when a family member becomes ill.

Even when unpaid leave is available, workers may be unable or unwilling to forego lost wages. Paid family leave allows mothers and fathers to take extended periods off work while receiving replacement wages, an important distinction, especially for lower income parents who would not be able to take time off otherwise.

Despite the increasing need for leave policies, many American workers still lack access to unpaid and paid leave.

By enabling workers who would have otherwise dropped out of the labor force to instead take short-term leave, such policies could benefit their employer’s longterm productivity by improving recruitment, retention, and worker motivation. There is also
increasing evidence that employers can offer greater flexibility to their workers, in terms of leave provisions and alternative work arrangements, without negative impacts on profitability.