Paid employment leave is rare in the U.S. Apart from the 12 unpaid weeks of family and medical leave available to employees through federal law, most American workers have few avenues for obtaining time off – much less time off with pay.

Because paid leave occurs so infrequently, exploring what makes this benefit such a rarity can give us a good look at a number of important facts about it from a legal standpoint.

Why is Paid Leave So Rare in America

Today, only 12 percent of the American workforce has access to paid leave. That’s because employers are usually not required to offer paid leave. Instead, they are required only to offer the unpaid leave established in the Family Medical and Leave Act (FMLA). This Act allows up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for workers to care for spouses, parents, children, adoptees or newborns.

Other labor laws cover types of leave beyond the purview of the FMLA. For instance, both vacation time and holiday time are types of leave that may be offered as part of a benefits package. More often than not, these types of leave are considered job benefits and are offered on an unpaid basis.

So why is it so rare to find a paid leave situation in American workplaces? Part of the reason has to do with maintaining the insurance necessary to cover the costs of paid leave. Employers shy away from adding yet another hefty expense to the bottom line. Thus, paid leave is a rarity and a real commodity in U.S. job markets.

It’s important to look at situations that warrant paid leave throughout the country. The idea of paid leave is well established in other countries and may begin to become widespread reality in the U.S. soon.

1. States lead the way with paid leave.

Paid leave could become a new normal in the U.S. as more and more states begin to enact legislation guaranteeing the right to it. So far Rhode Island and New Jersey have passed paid leave laws.

In Rhode Island, an employee can expect up to four weeks of paid time off in order to care for a sick family member or newborn or to attend to adoption services. Senator Gayle Goldin led the way for the passage of the law in 2013 citing economic and practical benefits, such as enabling employees to return to work more refreshed and less hassled by living expenses.

In New Jersey, employees can expect up to six weeks of paid leave to care for a family member’s serious health condition and up to 26 weeks for their own disabilities. The leave pay can be up to $584 weekly, and on average was about $420 per week in 2011.

Yet another state with paid leave laws on the books is Washington. Washington enacted its paid leave laws in 2007. However, the law is not yet in effect due to funding issues. When it does take effect, employees can expect five weeks of paid leave to care for a newborn or a newly adopted child.

2. Several types of paid leave already exist.

Paid leave in the context of employment can come in a number of different forms. Each form has associated laws and regulations that govern duration and specifics.

  • A paid leave of absence or personal leave allows an employee to take time off from his or her job while still maintaining the status of employee. In most cases, this type of leave falls under the category of a job benefit rather than vacation time, sabbaticals, or hiatuses.
  • Sick leave gives the employee a chance to take time off for self-care in the event of an illness.
  • Paid family leave allows employees to take time off the job in order to tend to or care for seriously ill family including parents, children or spouses.
  • Vacation is, of course, time taken off for rest and relaxation or travel.  Similarly, holiday time may be offered to an employee as a set number of days per year and could be paid as well, depending on the preferences of the company.

Employers may offer other types of paid leave beyond the few listed here. Paid leave can be offered at an employer’s expense or as a portion of an employee’s income, i.e. leave insurance programs.

Keep in mind that the policies and rules that govern each type of paid leave are usually discussed and outlined in a company handbook. The HR department may be a good resource for finding out more about the particular types of leave available at your job.

3. California is the latest state to make paid sick days mandatory.

In California, the Healthy Workers, Healthy Families Act is set to go into effect in July 2015. Under the act, workers will get the right to paid sick leave. The new law makes California the latest state to offer paid sick leave in the U.S.

The new law, which covers all employees, regardless of size, will require employers to provide one hour of sick leave for every 30 hours worked. Employers may limit the number of paid sick leave days to up to 24 hours per year (or 3 business days).

Already, Californians enjoyed up to six weeks of paid leave for family care and up to 52 weeks of paid leave to focus on their own disabilities. The pay for these benefits amounts to 55 percent of an employee’s weekly salary.

Employee Rights Advocates Groups Push for More Paid Leave Opportunities

Employee rights groups and even the Department of Labor are advocating for a new federal law, The Family Medical Leave Insurance Act(The Family Act), that would make paid leave the law of the land. Many advocates and employee are aware that America is one of only a few countries that do not offer this benefit to workers. Many believe the Family Act would help bring the U.S., and millions of its workers, into the 21st century.