Nationwide Paid Leave Bus Tour Culminates as Democrats Prepare to Expand Social Safety Net

A weeks-long bus tour, organized by Paid Leave For All—a group advocating for sustainable paid leave policy—recently ended. All in all, the campaign spanned 14 states, raising awareness about the need for paid family and medical leave for all.

Currently, the U.S. is the only industrialized country without a national form of paid leave, despite growing bipartisan support among voters.

Universal paid leave plays a large role in Democrats’ $3.5 trillion ‘human’ infrastructure package—which also includes universal pre-K and extensions to the child tax credit, free community college; expanded in-home caregiving for the disabled and elderly; climate change mitigation; lowered child care, health care and prescription drug costs; and reduced taxes on middle- and working-class families. On Tuesday, the House of Representatives approved the necessary budget framework for the package, a key first step.

The paid leave bus tour “was a chance to highlight this is a national issue, and it’s something that people around the country really are excited about and want and to get that message to Congress,” said Sherry Leiwant, A Better Balance’s co-founder and co-president, founding member and chair of the Policy Committee for Paid Leave For All and a speaker at the New York City bus stop.

Highlighted speakers during the tour included Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.); Charlene McCray, an activist and the wife of New York City Mayor de Blasio; and New York Governor Kathy Hochul, among others. 

“It was great to have these female leaders come out and say this is important care is important. It’s really important for us as policymakers and leaders to emphasize that we need this as a national program,” Leiwant told Ms.

“Both Senator Wyden from Oregon, who’s head of the Finance Committee, and Nancy Pelosi spoke,” Leiwant said. “They really did affirm that they are going to fight for paid family medical leave in the coming budget reconciliation. So that was really wonderful.”

A Better Balance, which was started by all-women team of lawyers who specialize in poverty and gender issues, is among the organizations that have been paving the way for paid leave to reach the House. 

“I personally know the challenges of caring for your family and also trying to be a good worker. My background is in representing poor women, poverty law and women’s rights. All of us were from an organization called now Legal Defense Fund, which was a women’s rights organization. All the co-founders felt the issues of care were not getting enough attention from the classic women’s rights movement,” Leiwant said. “And so we felt like an organization was needed to really push for those changes.”

Currently, 15 states plus D.C. require paid sick leave. Additionally, nine states and D.C. require paid family and medical leave. In working locally, A Better Balance believes that eventually more people will realize the necessity of paid leave and push for federal laws to protect workers and enable them to care for their families.

“The fact that these laws have worked, that the programs have worked, I mean, is extremely important in getting Congress and the White House to support them,” Leiwant said.

There has been some pushback to paid leave—but Leiwant says this is due to a lack of knowledge on the subject and the misconception that businesses are required to pay for the leave. 

“The fact of the matter is, if you are really sick, you have a new child, you have a family member who still needs you, you’re going to take that time anyway, whether it’s paid or not. And whether it’s job protected or not, you just are,” Leiwant said. “So why not have some means of paying because the businesses aren’t paying for this leave; it’s coming from premiums that are very low. In some ways, it’s really a win-win for employers because they don’t have to pay for the leave itself. And for smaller businesses that can’t afford to can’t possibly afford it, it really is a benefit.”

Leiwant remains hopeful that Congress will support paid leave for all, allowing the U.S. to join other countries with national programs. Leiwant said this will send the message “it’s okay and you should be entitled to take that time, and that you shouldn’t have repercussions at work—that there should just be a culture of accepting that people have to care for their families and take the time they need to do that.”

Paid leave for all is “something that’s important for everybody. It’s a movement that really includes all aspects of American life,” she said. “And I think that’s reflected in the bus tour and the work that’s being done under the umbrella of Paid Leave for All.”

Individuals can get involved in advocating for paid leave through various ways—including an art installation event on August 23 in Ohio, August 25 in New Hampshire and August 26 in Arizona. Learn more here.

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Juliet Schulman-Hall is an editorial fellow for Ms. and a senior at Smith College. She is majoring in English language & literature, minoring in sociology, and concentrating in poetry. Her beats include America's health care system, disability, global politics and climate change, and criminal justice reform and abolition. Follow her @jschulmanhall