When one of Kaïa Austin’s closest friends had top surgery, there was no question that Austin would care for them during their recovery. Austin took a couple of days off of work to drive them to and from the hospital, accompany them to follow-up appointments, and help with other tasks their first week after surgery. As platonic partners, they are committed to being family for each other.
“Many folks have blood family that doesn’t totally understand or accept gender-affirming surgeries, so I think it was important for them to have me there as someone who wholeheartedly supported them and saw them as they were,” said Austin.
More states are introducing paid leave policies that include language that enables workers to take paid leave to take care of chosen family, or non-biologically related friends, partners, elders, and other loved ones who form a social support system outside of immediate kin. These kinds of laws, which have gone into effect in Oregon and California, give LGBTQIA+ folks and other individuals the structural support they need to better care for their families and loved ones.
State sick leave laws allow workers to take paid time off in cases of illness, while the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for a family or medical emergency. However, most states only offer leave to the individual worker and their immediate family. Federal legislation specifies that workers are only entitled to family medical leave during the birth or adoption of a child, a serious health condition, or “to care for the spouse, or a son, daughter, or parent of the employee.”
Most leave policies fail to ensure time off for people outside nuclear family structures, and according to a survey by the Center for American Progress (CAP), around 37% of LGBTQIA+ workers reported not having access to paid family or sick leave. Among LGBTQIA+ workers earning less than $25,000 a year, 64% reported not having access.
“Workers should be allowed to take leave to care for anyone who means most to them in life,” said Cassandra Gomez, a senior staff attorney at A Better Balance, a nonprofit organization advocating for expansive language around workplace leave. “Having those inclusive family definitions is really just an equity point that gives all workers full access to their paid leave rights and honors all families.”
These laws benefit all workers. According to A Better Balance, around 81.6% of households in the U.S. do not fit the cisheterocentric “nuclear family” model. Single adults have their own support structures, and their care models include friends and extended family. According to the CAP survey, 32% of people living in households without children report missing work to care for a chosen family member. Expanded paid leave also allows someone living in a multigenerational household to take off work to care for an uncle, aunt, or cousin. A recent immigrant who ends up in the hospital can have her host mother with her while she recovers. A young professional can miss a few hours of work to drive her roommate to a doctor’s appointment.
Oregon’s law, originally passed in 2019, allows sick and family leave to be used for “any individual related by blood or affinity whose close association with a covered individual is the equivalent of a family relationship.” This language was first used during the Vietnam War to allow federal employees to take funeral leave for family members killed in combat. California’s AB 1041, passed last year, allows workers to identify a “designated person,” or “any individual related by blood or whose association with the employee is the equivalent of a family relationship,” for whom they may take paid sick leave or unpaid FMLA.
Advocates are pushing other states to adopt more inclusive paid leave policies. While New York allows paid sick leave for chosen family, A Better Balance is advocating for the state’s family leave law to also include chosen family. Paid family leave bills introduced this year in Minnesota, New Mexico, and Maine are expected to have expansive definitions of family.
While some business advocates, including the California Chamber of Commerce, have been resistant to bills that expand eligibility for family leave, other states have embraced more inclusive family language. In New Mexico, a state task force comprised of businesses, unions, and advocacy organizations designed the paid leave policy that will be introduced in the upcoming legislative session. When the task force discussed chosen family language, advocates explained its origins in the Vietnam War context to show that inclusive language is not a new phenomenon.
“Once people understood where it came from and what the purpose was, they were all in agreement that we could move forward with this language,” said Tracy McDaniel, a policy advocate with the Southwest Women’s Law Center.
In Maine, the Commission to Develop a Paid Family and Medical Leave Benefits Program also opted to recommend language allowing paid leave to be used for relationships based on affinity—relationships created through marriage, like parents-in-law. Officials assessing the fiscal impact of a broader definition of family noted that the affinity definition only impacts non-bonding family care claims, which make up less than 10% of total claims. The cost of adding an affinity definition of family is negligible, while the impact on families can be immeasurable. Maine’s legislature will consider the commission’s recommendation during this year’s session.
For LGBTQIA+ people in states with more expansive family leave laws, the impact is clear.
“It’s really important that we’re able to show up for the people who are most important in our lives, whether they are blood-related or not,” Austin said.