“To vex people who are coping with difficulties is an iniquity and a cause for punishment. Those people [workers] are sufficiently burdened already, as a matter of course, without that added affliction.”


—Rabbi Judah ben Samuel of Ratisbon (1150-1217 CE)


Women of Reform Judaism has long prioritized workers’ well-being, from our support for worker justice, to our advocacy for universal health care, to our 2008 resolution on paid sick leave, to our ongoing pay equity initiative. Though we’ve seen significant progress toward worker justice, too many workers still must choose between their health or the health of their families and their jobs and financial security.

Paid family and medical leave – often of extended duration – is time away from one’s job at full or partial pay to attend to one’s own serious illness, the serious illness of a family member, or the birth, adoption, or foster placement of a child. Out of 185 countries reviewed by the International Labour Organization, the United States is one of just two that does not guarantee paid maternity leave, the other being Papua New Guinea.1

Federal paid leave legislation would parallel the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA), legislation that WRJ strongly supported, which provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave for many American workers. FMLA provides critical workplace protections, yet it is available to fewer than 50 percent of workers. Many who are covered cannot afford to take time off without pay. Paid family and medical leave legislation, such as the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (FAMILY Act), would ensure that qualified employees continue to receive some income during this period of leave. Federal paid leave legislation would also provide protection for many of the workers currently excluded by the FMLA, ensuring that they, too, have access to leave and that they receive some pay during that leave. Paid leave legislation would achieve these goals by creating a social insurance program that covers workers in all-size businesses, as well as those who work part-time or have less time on the job than is required for FMLA eligibility.

According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, “only 13 percent of workers in the United States have access to paid family leave through their employers, and fewer than 40 percent have access to personal medical leave through employer-provided short-term disability insurance.” These statistics underline the need for national legislation to provide workers across the United States with paid family and medical leave.

Paid family leave is important not only for the immediate health of the individual, but also to relieve the stress of the caretaker and to sustain the worker’s economic security during leave. Thirteen percent of families with a new infant become poor within a month. In the year after giving birth, new mothers who take paid leave are more likely than those who take no paid leave to stay in the workforce after their period of leave. Studies show that when parents are able to take time off to care for a sick child, the child recovers faster. Nearly 70 percent of caregivers report having to make work accommodations to provide care to a loved one, and of those caregivers who take time off to provide such care, 48 percent report losing income. Among those who receive part or no pay during leave, one third borrow money, dip into savings, or put off paying bills, while 15% go on public assistance to help provide basic necessities for their families.6 Paid family and medical leave can help address these challenges.

Eligibility and pay-for mechanisms differ among federal and state proposals and existing programs. California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island each have paid family leave laws and longstanding Temporary Disability Insurance laws (for personal medical leave) with varying methods to fund this leave and different lengths of time off provided. These programs are funded by payroll contributions from employees and/or employers, averaging less than one percent of paycheck contributions from either party. Eligibility is based on prior earnings history, how long the person has been working and who the worker is taking leave to care for. Some states allow workers to take paid leave to care for only immediate family (parents and children), and others allow for a broader definition of family including grandparents, parents-in-law, a domestic partner, and a civil union partner. The leading federal proposal (the FAMILY Act) is modeled on successful state programs, guaranteeing workers up to 66 percent of their usual pay for up to 12 weeks, funded through a new social insurance fund created through small payroll deductions of 4/10 of one percent, split evenly between employees and employers.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business have generally spoken against federal and state level paid family and medical leave laws; they argue these laws place a burden on employers, especially small businesses. Others assert that paid family and medical leave laws hinder job growth. However, research from California and New Jersey, where paid family leave already exists, dispels these concerns. A growing list of businesses support paid leave programs, citing the importance of paid leave to worker retention and their ability to ensure employees have access to the paid time off they need without putting the sole burden of providing leave on employers.2, 3, 4

Our ancient Jewish tradition emphasizes the fair treatment of workers as a matter of social justice. The Torah instructs that “you must pay out the wages due on the same day, before the sun sets, for the worker is in need and urgently depends on it” (Deuteronomy 24:14-15). We are also taught that “one who withholds an employee’s wages it is as though he deprived him of his life” (Baba Metzia 112a). These teachings remind us in no uncertain terms that workers who earn a low wage depend on their daily wages for their very existence, and that to deny them their wages—especially at a critical time of personal or family medical need—is profoundly unjust.​

Our tradition also compels us to care for our health, the health of loved ones, and the health of those in our community. Maimonides taught that "since maintaining a healthy and sound body is among the ways of God—for one cannot understand or have any knowledge of the Creator if one is ill—therefore one must avoid that which harms the body and accustom oneself to that which is helpful and helps the body become stronger" (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De'ot 4:1). A scholar and a physician, Maimonides also taught that protecting health is not just an obligation for the patient and the doctor, but indeed is the most important communal service that a city had to offer its residents (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De’ot 4:23). Together, these teachings inspire us to advocate for paid family leave policies that engage employers as actors empowered to provide communal services in ensuring that workers can care for their health and the health of loved ones.

Given its longstanding commitment to economic justice and the well-being of families, Women of Reform Judaism calls upon its sisterhoods to:

  1. Support the concept of paid family and medical leave policies, while assessing the feasibility and impact of specific proposals at all levels of government;
  2. Help build coalitions and advocate for the passage of paid family and medical leave laws; and
  3. Urge their congregations and all arms of the Reform Movement to provide paid family and medical leave to their employees and set an example for their communities.