Submitted by the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism
The URJ has long prioritized workers' well-being, from our support for Living Wage Campaigns,1 to calling for Workers' Rights in the United States,2 to urging reform of the Health Care System,3 to our 2013 URJ resolution on Paid Sick Days.4 Even still, workers must too often choose between their health or the health of their families and their job and financial security.
Paid family and medical leave – often of extended duration – is time away from one's job at full or partial pay to attend to one's own serious illness or the serious illness of a family member or the birth, adoption or foster placement of a child. Out of 185 countries reviewed by the International Labour Organization, the United States is one of just two that does not guarantee paid maternity leave, the other being Papua New Guinea.5 In Canada, maternity, parental and sickness benefits are available to qualified employees.6
Paid leave legislation proposed in the U.S. Congress, known as the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (FAMILY Act), would create a national family and medical leave insurance program to ensure that qualified employees continue to receive an income for up to 12-weeks of leave per year to care for their own health, the health of a child, parent, spouse or domestic partner, or the birth or adoption of a child. It builds on the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), enacted in 1993 with the URJ's support, which provided 12 weeks of unpaid leave for similar purposes. However, unlike FMLA, because the FAMILY Act creates a national program that is funded by every worker and every employer, it would cover workers in businesses of all sizes, as well as employees who work part-time or have less time on the job than required for FMLA eligibility. The FAMILY Act is also modeled on successful state programs, guaranteeing workers up to 66 percent of their usual pay for up to 12 weeks per year, funded through small payroll deductions of 4/10 of one percent, split evenly between employees and employers.
According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, "only 13 percent of workers in the United States have access to paid family leave through their employers, and fewer than 40 percent have access to personal medical leave through employer-provided short-term disability insurance."7
Paid family leave is important not only for the immediate health of the individual, but also to relieve the stress of the caretaker and to sustain the worker's economic security during leave. In the U.S., thirteen percent of families with a new infant enter into poverty within the first month because of the combined effects of a need for increased income and a reduced number of working hours.8 In the year after giving birth, new mothers who take paid leave are more likely than those who take no paid leave to stay in the work force. Among those who receive partial or no pay during leave, 33% borrow money, dip into savings, or put off paying bills, while 15% go on public assistance to help provide basic necessities for their families.9 Paid family and medical leave can help address these challenges. Studies also show that when parents are able to take time off to care for a sick child, the child recovers faster.10
Eligibility and pay-for mechanisms differ among U.S. federal and state proposals and existing programs. California, New Jersey and Rhode Island11 each have paid family leave laws and longstanding Temporary Disability Insurance laws (for personal medical leave)12 with varying methods to fund this leave and different lengths of time-off provided.13 These programs are funded by payroll contributions from employees and/or employers, averaging less than one percent of paycheck contributions from either party. Eligibility is based on prior earnings history, how long the person has been working and the individual the worker is taking leave to care for. States vary as to whom they allow someone to care for under paid family leave: only for the birth or adoption of a child (e.g. Washington); only for immediate family such as parents, spouses, domestic partners and children (e.g. New Jersey and California); or for a more broad definition of family including grandparents, parents-in-law and a civil union partner (e.g. Rhode Island).
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business have generally spoken against federal and state paid family leave laws because the burden, they argue, is placed on the employer, especially small businesses. Others have stated their opposition to paid leave measures, asserting they hinder job growth. However, research from California and New Jersey where paid family leave already exists dispel these concerns.14 15 A growing list of businesses support paid leave programs, citing the importance of paid leave to worker retention and their ability to ensure employees have access to the paid time off they need without putting the sole burden of providing leave on employers.16
Jewish tradition speaks strongly to valuing workers' dignity as well as maintaining healthy families. We are taught in the Torah, "You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow Israelite or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay out the wages due on the same day, before the sun sets, for the worker is needy and urgently depends on it; else a cry to the Eternal will be issued against you and you will incur guilt" (Deut. 24:14-15). Later tradition expands on this teaching by addressing not only wages but also working conditions. The rabbis of the Talmud taught in the case in which an employer says to workers, "I raised your wages in order that you would begin early and stay late," they may reply, "You raised our wages in order that we would do better work" (Bava M'tzia 83a). From these ancient principles our ancestors derived an ethical employment system that mandated fair and sensitive treatment toward laborers.
Under Jewish law, employees also have obligations to fulfill in respect to their employers including working faithfully at their highest capacity, keeping themselves satiated and refraining from working both days and nights (Berakhot 16a). As Maimonides noted, "Just as the employer is enjoined not to deprive the poor worker of his hire or withhold it from him when it is due, so is the worker enjoined not to deprive the employer of the benefit of this work by idling away his time, a little here and a little there, thus wasting the whole day deceitfully" (Mishneh Torah, Book 13, Chapter 13:7).
Our tradition also addresses the moral need to ensure our health: "Since by keeping the body in health and vigor, one walks in the ways of God-it being impossible during sickness to have any understanding or knowledge of the Creator - it is a person's duty to avoid whatever is injurious to the body and cultivate habits conducive to health and vigor" (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Book of Knowledge, Laws Relating to Moral and Ethical Conduct, 1). And throughout Jewish history the provision of health services is seen as an essential aspect of a moral society (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De'ot IV: 23).
Connecting the ideas of labor and health is a Jewish dictum teaching that employers and employees have a common interest in workers' health and a mutual obligation to secure the wellness of the labor force. We are taught that "one who withholds an employee's wages is as though he deprived him of his life" (Baba Metzia112a). These values have inspired the URJ to offer paid family leave to its own employees.
THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Union for Reform Judaism:
- Supports and advocates for legislation that provides paid family and medical leave, while recognizing that we must also assess the feasibility and impact of any specific proposal;
- Calls upon our congregations to help build coalitions and advocate for the passage of paid family and medical leave laws; and
- Urges our congregations and all arms of the Reform Movement to provide, to the extent feasible, paid family and medical leave for their employees, and set an example for their communities.
 Heymann, J., & Earle, A. (2010). "Raising the global floor: dismantling the myth that we can't afford good working conditions for everyone. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Politics and Policy.
 See http://www.nationalpartnership.org/research-library/work-family/paid-leave/paid-leave-works-in-california-new-jersey-and-rhode-island.pdf; http://www.nationalpartnership.org/research-library/work-family/paid-leave/paid-leave-good-for-business.pdf; www.betterwbb.org