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West Virginia should fight for family leave

Kat Stoll Kat Stoll | February 08, 2023


By Kathleen Stoll
February 8, 2023

Feb. 5 marked the anniversary of the passage of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. For 30 years, the act has helped Americans take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave from work when they are seriously ill or to care for a new child or a sick family member without the risk of losing their jobs.

I hesitate to reveal my age, but my first job out of college was for the National Health Law Program as their representative to a large coalition of women, children, senior and health consumer advocacy organizations, as well as business associations and labor unions. All these diverse interests were working together to draft and pass the Medical Leave Act in Congress.

It took eight years before I saw the act signed by the president, with both Republican and Democrats in support. It was a milestone protection for workers, but it was never meant to be the end of the fight.

First, the law doesn’t cover all workers. Employees are eligible for leave if they have worked for their employer at least 12 months, at least 1,250 hours over the past 12 months (24 hours a week on average), and work for an employer with 50 or more employees within 75 miles. In West Virginia, more than 60% of workers are not helped by the Family Medical Leave Act.

Second, unpaid leave meant that workers still faced impossible choices between keeping a paycheck and caring for their family or themselves.

The United States is one of the only wealthy countries in the world that does not provide adequate paid leave. While state legislatures and Congress are acting to limit the reproductive choices of families, how can we not allow our workers and families the time off that they need to be healthy and be good parents? When does our Legislature start to enact policies that support parental and child health?

Eleven states have passed paid family and medical leave laws, including neighboring Maryland. It is doable, and there are a few ways to finance paid leave that I won’t dive into here. But let’s have that debate. The point is that it is doable. It is not pie in the sky. I know Republicans and Democrats recognize the importance of supporting mothers, children and families as a core part of West Virginia culture, traditions and communities. It really should be a policy that rallies bipartisan support.

From a health and economic perspective, low-wage and small-business workers and their families shouldn’t be forced to suffer worse health outcomes. Paid leave provides necessary time for children and families to prevent and treat illnesses, spend critical time bonding, seek preventive care and better maintain their mental health and overall well-being.

Many parents are “sandwich-generation” West Virginians. They shoulder the responsibilities of caring for children and elder family members. In the next 20 years, the share of West Virginia’s population age 65 and older will grow by nearly one-seventh. If family members can provide care during a health crisis, we can divert elders from ending up needing more intensive long-term care or in expensive nursing home — care that is often paid for by our state Medicaid program.

A paid family and medical leave policy can reduce costs for programs like Medicaid, PEIA and other state-funded health services for children and elders. That should be something that attracts the interest of Republicans and Democrats.

Further, so much political conversation in West Virginia is about attracting workers and their families to our state and workforce development. A West Virginia paid family and medical leave law supports more productive working families and an expanded workforce, makes our state attractive to young families and, in turn, builds a stronger economy.

My colleagues at the National Partnership for Women and Families, in honor of the 30th anniversary of the Family Medical Leave Act, released a fact sheet about the need to go further. It is worth highlighting a few key facts:

  • About 17,100 children are born in West Virginia each year, and in 64% of all West Virginia households with children — nearly 207,000 homes — all parents report to work.
  • In West Virginia, a typical worker who takes four weeks of unpaid leave loses more than $2,800 in income. As the cost of living rises, income loss hits families especially hard. Lower-wage workers are hit the hardest.
  • If women in West Virginia participated in the labor force at the same rate as women in countries with paid leave, there would be an estimated 36,000 additional workers in the state and $1 billion more wages earned statewide.

I hope it won’t take another 30 years to enact paid family and medical leave laws in Congress. As with so many issues, this in one where the states can, and should, lead. Therefore, I applaud the Paid Leave Works for West Virginia coalition that continues this fight in my state.

Our West Virginia families deserve to choose to work and also take care of themselves and their families.

Kathleen Stoll is the policy director for West Virginians for Affordable Health Care ( and operates a policy and economic consulting business, Kat Consultin

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West Virginia should fight for family leave
West Virginia should fight for family leave