Laura Berlinsky-Schine

Just five states and the District of Columbia have laws for paid family leave now, but that could be changing, Slate reports. Twenty-one states have pending legislation seeking to improve on existing paid leave plans. (Check out this handy Paid Family Leave State Legislative Tracker to find out what’s going on in your state.)

But while some states are attempting to improve paid leave plans by offering more weeks, requiring a larger percentage of wages to be administered, and expanding the definition of what family means, the states with current and pending legislation make up less than 24 percent of the country, while more than 75 percentnof the country supports some form of paid family leave.

No federal policy exists, and the only proposed Republican bill—which comes from Marco Rubio—is limited to parental leave and would reduce or withhold Social Security benefits from future parents. In short, it’s unsustainable.

 That’s why it’s necessary for states to step in and step up.

“States are laboratories for invention,” said Wendy Chun-Hoon, co-director of Family Values @ Work, an organization working with paid family leave coalitions at the state level. “States are paving the way to eventual federal policy….States have more confidence. They’re seeing what can be done and are willing to go further.”

California enacted the first paid family leave policy in the U.S. in 2004. New Jersey followed in 2009, and Rhode Island implemented a policy in 2014. New York’s law began just this year, and Washington’s will take effect next year.

Washington’s plan will offer 12 weeks of paid family leave and options to extend the leave to 16 to 18 weeks. This is more than any existing law, but it still may not be enough for new parents.

Meanwhile, other states are creating new legislations of their own. Hawaii wants to expand the definition of family to include siblings and grandparents, generally excluded from FMLA, so that caregivers can take time off to be with these family members. Colorado is trying to include a higher percentage of wage replacement. 

But before these laws can be enacted, states must figure out exactly how they’re going to make them work. The original states folded family leave benefits into their temporary disability insurance programs (TDI), but many states don’t have these programs in place.

Washington is working with its unemployment insurance program to implement the system, and Colorado and waiting to see if it works. The latter state passed a paid family leave bill in the state house but may have difficulty getting it through the state senate.

While support for paid family leave transcends party lines, all of the states that have passed laws or have legislation pending voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. So, it is a partisan issue to an extent.

However, some representatives have claimed that it’s been a cordial process.

“Instead of the purely adversarial process where people snipe at each other, this ended up being four months locked in a room where people started to express what interests they were trying to represent,” said Republican state Sen. Joe Fain of Washington’s deliberations. “We were creating a program that would work well for their businesses. They have been wanting to find ways to offer benefits to their employees but haven’t been able to do so financially.”

States may also face opposition from lobbyists, though many business owners may not speak out given the overwhelming support for many state plans.

“The Chambers of Commerce in most places are opposed, though many small businesses are fine with it,” said Brianna Cayo Cotter of PL+US. “That is what we’re going to see on paid family leave: members peeling off.” 

Cotter points out that there are now 1.5 million people who have gained access to paid family leave this year. States including Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Hawaii are all at different stages of creating their programs, with Massachusetts likely to enact one by the end of this year. 

Democratic Rep. Faith Winter is running for state senate seat in Colorado, championing paid family leave as part of her platform. If the Senate reverts to Democratic control, and Colorado elects a governor who supports the bill, paid leave could happen in Colorado sooner rather than later. 

“Every time we run the bill, the policy gains more votes, polls higher, and our coalition grows,” said Winter.