Driving Implementation of State Paid Leave Programs: The Role of Philanthropy in Ensuring Access to Paid Family and Medical Leave

In the report Driving Implementation of State Paid Leave Programs: The Role of Philanthropy in Ensuring Access to Paid Family and Medical Leave, ACS client, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) examines the role that philanthropy can play in expanding access to paid leave. This report was published in June of 2021, during a time when discussion of paid family leave is being framed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The United States does not have a federal paid family and medical leave policy, despite its importance in advancing economic, gender, and racial equity. Employers are required to provide unpaid leave to some qualifying employees, but many workers cannot afford to take unpaid leave. Some states have passed their own policies providing paid family and medical leave, but many barriers still exist―even in states with these policies.

The RWJF report distinguishes philanthropy’s role into four main categories:

  • State administration
  • Outreach and communications
  • Culture change
  • Policy development

In terms of state administration, RWJF suggests that philanthropy intervenes to improve state systems that allow workers to claim benefits. Often, these systems are difficult to navigate and therefore limit access to paid leave in states where it is available. Philanthropists can fund advocates to help states address any issues workers elevate with enrolling or claiming benefits. Advocates can engage in user testing, provide feedback to states, and help states implement best practices in accessibility and human-centered design.

Another barrier to accessing paid leave is misinformation or lack of information. RWJF recommends that philanthropy empower messengers that employers trust to communicate important information about paid leave laws, and support efforts to align the communication with the state’s messaging. Funders can also invest in advocates that enact tailored, culturally and linguistically relevant information campaigns—specifically aiming to reach workers of color and low-income workers.

Workers with access to paid leave will also avoid taking advantage of it due to workplace cultures. Low-wage workers especially fear that taking leave will reflect poorly on their performance and cost them opportunities for advancement. Management may perpetuate this culture by telling employees how challenging it would be for the employee to take leave, complaining to an employee about another employee taking leave, or outright telling employees to not take leave. In response, funders should consider supporting corporate accountability campaigns, finance the development of training content for employers and employees specifically designed to shift workplace culture around taking paid leave, and support advocates to change the narrative of taking paid leave and caregiving more broadly.

Lastly, philanthropy can support ongoing advocacy efforts related to a paid leave policy’s provisions can help ensure states pass a paid leave law that is more responsive to workers’ needs. Philanthropic support can also help create regulations that enhance rather than diminish the effectiveness of a paid leave policy.

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