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Leave Experiences of Low-Wage Workers

Scott Brown, Radha Roy, and Jacob Alex Klerman, Abt Global


March 9, 2021

This paper compares leave experiences of low- and non-low wage workers using data from the 2018 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) Employee Survey.

The study examined employees’ use of leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which guarantees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year to qualifying employees for specified family and medical leave reasons and up to 26 weeks of leave in a 12-month period to care for a service member. While there is no requirement in FMLA that employers provide any pay during the leave, employees may have access to pay while on leave through means such as vacation and sick leave or state-paid family leave.

The paper finds low- and non-low wage workers take leave at similar rates for similar reasons. But experiences with leave are different and often worse for low-wage workers. Lower wage earners commonly lack access to paid leave for their own serious health condition. When they do take leave, they more commonly face worse financial consequences and job outcomes. Key findings include:

  • Low-wage workers are less likely to have access to paid leave for their own serious health condition than non-low-wage workers (52 percent versus 80 percent).  
  • Only about one-third of low-wage workers are eligible for FMLA-protected leave compared with about two-thirds of higher earning workers.
  • When low-wage workers take leave, they are more likely to lose their job (18 percent versus 5 percent) and more likely to need to borrow money or go on public assistance to cover lost wages.

Leave Experiences of Low-Wage Workers - Full Report

Leave Experiences by Gender and Wages - Short Brief