Biden calls for expanded federal medical leave, paid benefits for workers

U.S. President Joe Biden marks 30th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act at the White House in Washington

By Steve Holland and Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday joined former President Bill Clinton to mark the 30th anniversary of the 1993 law that allows Americans to take unpaid medical leave, and vowed to keep fighting for paid leave for all Americans.

The Family and Medical Leave Act, the first Clinton signed after taking office, guarantees that certain workers may take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave without losing their jobs or health insurance benefits. The law applies to public agencies, schools and private sector employers with at least 49 employees.

“It’s about being a country where women and all people can both work and raise a family,” Biden told a packed event at the White House. “How can we compete in a global economy if millions of American parents, especially moms, can’t join the workforce?”

Biden’s legislation ensuring paid family and medical leave for Americans has been thwarted by Republicans who argue it is too costly – and some Democrats – in Congress.

On Thursday, he signed a presidential memorandum urging federal agencies provide leave without pay for federal workers, including during their first year of service.

He said he would continue to push for a national program of paid family and medical leave to bring the United States in line with “every single other major economy in the world.”

The United States is the only wealthy country where women are not routinely entitled to paid maternity leave.

“I call on Congress to act and I’ll continue fighting as I know you will as well,” he said. “No American should ever … have to choose between a paycheck and taking care of a family member or taking care of themselves.”

Biden’s memorandum is aimed at ensuring that federal workers can get leave for caring for a new child, dealing with their own or a family member’s serious health condition, managing family affairs when a family member is called to active duty, or grieving the death of a family member, the White House said.

The Defense Department this month expanded its paid parental leave program to allow both active-duty parents to take 12 weeks off after the birth, adoption or placement into long-term foster care of a child.

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Biden’s memo directs agencies to use their discretion to aid workers, especially during their first year of service before they qualify for family and medical leave or paid parental leave. It directs the Office of Personnel Management to provide recommendations on paid and unpaid “safe leave” for federal workers affected by domestic or dating violence, sexual assault or stalking, according to a White House fact sheet.

Jen Klein, who heads the White House Gender Policy Council, told reporters the Biden administration would “do whatever we can do by executive action” to advance protections for workers while continuing to push for national legislation ensuring paid family and medical leave.

Heather Boushey, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said such changes would buttress the strength of the U.S. economy. Increased women’s workforce participation had added about 10% – or $2.14 trillion – to the U.S. economy since the 1970s, she said.

Boushey said a recent study estimated that about 56% of U.S. workers – or 90 million people – had care responsibilities outside of their full-time jobs, and the situation was growing more dire given the aging population.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Andrea Shalal; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell and Deepa Babington)