News Update

Opinion: It's shameful that paid leave is stuck in limbo

On Thursday, President Joe Biden took to the airwaves to share the key components of his current Build Back Better budget reconciliation framework, which included tremendous gains for families, including child care, home- and community-based services, the Child Tax Credit, expansion of affordable health care, addressing racial disparities by improving equity through investments in maternal health and immigration reform.
Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner
Notably missing: The high-polling and urgently-needed policy of paid family/medical leave.
The policy is on life support due to a couple of holdout senators, primarily Sen. Joe Manchin from West Virginia, and intransigent Republicans. This is despite the fact concurrent proposed tax reform could more than pay for a larger package — and despite the fact that moms, dads, and caregivers across the political spectrum have been calling on Congress to pass this policy.
Pushback on the pushout was immediate in both the House and Senate (and from parents across the nation). “There are some things that aren’t in that I frankly haven’t given up on. Being a mother of 5 children in 6 years, I’ve changed more diapers than anybody in Congress. I still would like to see paid leave,” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi told reporters Thursday. And Democratic Sen. Patty Murray from Washington, remarked: “We are not going to allow one or two men to tell women, millions of them in this country, that they can’t have paid leave.”
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I couldn’t agree more.
We are in the midst of a deadly pandemic, in a jobs and care crisis, as the only industrialized nation in the world without some form of national paid family/medical leave. We need it badly. This life-saving and economy-boosting policy should not be delayed.
Paid family/medical leave is a policy that makes it possible for people to recover from childbirth to bond with a new child, or to take care of themselves or a close loved one if a serious health crisis strikes. The fact that right now, in a pandemic which has taken more than 730,000 lives in the US, paid leave is on a political ventilator is outrageous, unconscionable, indefensible and wrong. It’s a measure of how broken our political system is right now.
The situation is critical. Going into the pandemic, while a small percentage of people had this policy through their work or due to state law, our nation guaranteed zero weeks of paid family/medical leave, while all other countries on average have 26 weeks of paid leave. That — combined with our failure as yet to build a care infrastructure with quality, affordable childcare, living wages for care workers, a commitment to continue the Child Tax Credit expansion and home- and community-based services for people with disabilities and the aging — has had devastating consequences.
What does the devastation look like? Millions of moms and caregivers have been disproportionately pushed out of the labor force, with Black, brown and Indigenous moms experiencing compounded health and economic harms. And lives that could have been saved are being lost, in part due to our failure to guarantee paid family/medical leave.
The United States has one of the highest Covid-19 mortality rates of industrialized nations, with the sixth-worst overall mortality rate of 36 industrialized nations, even as studies show access to paid leave helps flatten the curve. And we also have the dubious distinction of being the only industrialized country where maternal mortality is increasing, with Black women three to four times more likely to die in childbirth than White women.
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That’s not all. The cost of child care is now higher than public college, even as most care workers are paid sub-living wages — and these child care costs are particularly hard to meet without paid leave as a bridge to going back to work after a new baby arrives. Businesses are faltering because our care infrastructure is nearly non-existent, pushing the employees they need to keep their doors open out of the labor force.
The fact that most of the care infrastructure policies — including childcare and home- and community-based services — are moving forward, as they should, in the reconciliation package is a reason to celebrate. These are historic, much-needed investments that will create jobs in a big way. The fact that paid family/medical leave is falling behind is harmful and disgraceful to our nation’s families and economy.
One in four women are pushed back to work within two weeks of giving birth or welcoming a new child simply because they have no access to paid leave, according to the advocacy group Paid Leave US. Too often it means parents are forced back to work before they can fully heal and sometimes before babies are even out of the newborn intensive care unit. It can also mean parents are pushed out of much-needed jobs altogether.
In addition, a lack of paid leave means too many people face devastating economic consequences if a serious health crisis strikes them, or if they are forced to choose between work and being there for family when a loved one suffers critical illness.
We are not okay. I believe the best policy for families, businesses, and our country is for everyone to have access to at least 12 weeks of paid family/medical leave. But according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 20% of private sector workers in our nation, including only 8% of the lowest wage earners, have access to some form of paid family/medical leave when a new baby arrives or a serious health crisis strikes.
It’s unconscionable only people who win the boss lottery, or live in one of the nine states or the District of Columbia with paid leave mandated by law, have access to this.
Yet even with overwhelming data showing how paid family/medical leave saves lives, saves dollars and helps businesses, as well as countless caregiver stories, the original Build Back Better proposal to mandate 12 weeks of leave is in question.
To be specific, as proposed, the Biden American Families Plan would create a national comprehensive paid family/medical leave to “guarantee twelve weeks of paid parental, family, and personal illness/safe leave by year 10 of the program, and also ensure workers get three days of bereavement leave per year starting in year one. The program will provide workers up to $4,000 a month, with a minimum of two-thirds of average weekly wages replaced, rising to 80 percent for the lowest-wage workers.” Importantly, this wage replacement would come through a national program not from the employer.
It’s shameful paid family/medical leave is stuck in limbo. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can become a healthier, more economically secure nation by taking this policy off the political ventilator and passing it. We need all holdout lawmakers to read the room: Paid family/medical leave is hugely popular among Republican and Democratic voters alike.
We also shouldn’t overlook that passing the policy — especially in ways that include progressive wage replacement, job protection, non-discrimination protections and more—will help address systemic inequalities. Importantly, research shows passing paid family/medical leave for people of all genders and advancing childcare together could help stop the extreme wage and hiring discrimination moms face, and moms of color face in a compounded way due to structural racism.
Pay parity would add $512.6 billion to our national economy since women make the majority of consumer purchasing decisions in our consumer-fueled economy. In fact, a recent study found finally building a care infrastructure — including paid family/medical leave, childcare, home- and community-based services, and living wages and a path to citizenship for care workers — would boost our nation’s long-term GDP growth by 1 to 1.5 percentage points, according to Moody’s.
Businesses are helped too, because with paid family/medical leave, they would no longer need to carry the cost alone when an employee must go on paid leave. Further, having the policy in place reduces recruitment and retraining costs while raising employee productivity. Taxpayers benefit as well: Studies in California, which adopted paid family/medical leave years ago, show a 40% lower need for food stamps when paid family/medical leave is available.
So, what are we waiting for? It’s a no-brainer.
Moms and caregivers fight every day for our families to thrive, and we beat expectations again and again. The reason we are so close to passing paid family/medical leave in the first place is because moms, dads, and caregivers have been turning out to vote and raising their voices for years. And while the headlines show we have some powerful elected leaders still fighting for paid family/medical leave right now, we all also still clearly need to do some more political CPR for this crucial policy to back them up.
The message people should give to their representatives in Congress: Don’t delay on passing paid family/medical leave. Tell them to bring it to life by passing it immediately. The fight is still on!
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