Paid Family Leave Policies Can’t Be Temporary

COVID-19 has generated momentum for paid leave—but it’s up to all of us to keep pushing and make sure America moves forward on paid leave for all.

Paid Family Leave Policies Can't Be Temporary
Just 8 percent of workers who make less than $14 an hour had access to paid leave last year. (Napoleon Cole / Flickr)

Last week, I gave a little cheer behind my work-from-home desk that doubles as my family’s dining room table: The House of Representatives passed the American Rescue Plan, which would (among other things) extend voluntary tax credits for employers that offer emergency sick and family leave to their workers. It now heads to the Senate for debate, which begins Thursday amid tight security.

If the American Rescue Plan is approved, companies could be reimbursed if they provide the flexibility during COVID-19 for their workers to take time off for personal health and family caregiving, in addition to caring for a child whose child care or school has closed.

This builds on recent momentum for paid leave, sparked by the pandemic. Last March, Congress approved a first round of this kind of support in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. That bill provided an estimated 87 million workers with long-term emergency paid family leave of up to 10 weeks for working people who need to take care of a child, as well as two work weeks of job-protected paid sick days.

While these have been emergency provisions, they also represent a good step in the longer journey toward a permanent paid leave policy.

Working Toward a Permanent Paid Leave Policy

Every day at work, I have paid leave on my mind. That’s my job as an advocate for policies that will improve the lives of women and families and create a more equitable and just society. But it had been a while since I had personally thought about taking leave—in fact, it had been seven years since I took (mostly unpaid) leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act for the birth of my son.

That all changed with the pandemic, as it did for many working parents. Taking time off became a necessity when my first grader’s school closed. I’m lucky now. I am part of the 20 percent of private-sector workers with paid leave. But eight out of 10 workers do not have that option: They have to choose between earning a paycheck or taking care of their families and managing any personal medical issues.

Historically, Black and Hispanic workers have been less likely than white workers to have paid leave. This has become especially troubling over the past year, as COVID-19 has had a disproportionate and fatal impact on people of color. As a Filipina, it has been heartbreaking to see the devastating impact the virus has had on Filipino nurses. They make up 30 percent of COVID-19-related nursing deaths in the country, but health care workers were excluded from the emergency paid leave provisions that Congress passed last year.

Just 8 percent of workers who make less than $14 an hour had access to paid leave last year. Plus, access to family and medical leave varies widely by state. For example, in Florida, where I grew up, 63 percent of workers do not even have access to leave without pay. Other states like Colorado and Washington have enacted paid leave policies in recent years.

Here’s the bottom line: You shouldn’t have to live in a particular place or take up a certain vocation or work for the right employer just to access something as necessary as paid leave. And under no circumstances should it ever come down to a person’s race or background.  

That brings me back to Congress—because we need a national guarantee for paid leave that covers all workers, no matter what. 

Supporting a National Mandate for Paid Leave

The good news is that we’re making progress. The foundational Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA), which passed 28 years ago, guarantees that an employer cannot fire someone for taking time away from work to care for a loved one or recover from a medical emergency.

Even with the FMLA, though, many workers still have to make drastic trade-offs.

Growing up, my mother worked in retail and had access to some paid time off, but she was afraid of getting fired if she took it. If she stayed home with me when I was sick, she would go to work for the next few weeks or months in fear, hoping that it didn’t cause her to lose her job. Once, she had her own medical condition that required surgery, but she went back to work as soon as she could to show she was a good worker.

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Workers like my mom motivate me to push for a paid leave policy that includes job protection and provides adequate pay during leave and medical leave.

The FAMILY Act is the next step. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), along with 196 members of the House and 36 senators, re-introduced it earlier this month. The bill is the kind of permanent solution that would provide paid leave for all workers, regardless of their race, gender, vocation or who they work for.

TAKE ACTION: Three Things You Can Do to Support Paid Leave

Recent progress on paid leave shows that Congress is listening to advocates and people around the country who are struggling under the weight of work and caregiving responsibilities. While that’s a good sign, it also means we can’t let up.

Anyone who cares about paid leave can do these three things to generate more momentum for it.

1. Put Pressure on Congress.

First, we need to keep pressing Congress to enact a permanent paid leave policy that works for everyone, like the FAMILY Act.

2. Take It Local.

People can also get involved at the local level. Every time a city or state guarantees paid leave for workers, the more a national policy becomes an eventuality.

3. Share Your Story.

Third, I always encourage people to share their stories with their friends, colleagues and wider networks on why paid leave matters to them. The more we speak out, the louder the chorus becomes for supporting women and families.

COVID-19 has generated momentum for paid leave, but it’s up to all of us to keep pushing and make sure America moves forward on paid leave for all.

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Lelaine Bigelow is the managing director of external affairs at the National Partnership for Women & Families.