Despite popular support for family leave bills in America, only a handful of states and cities have passed family leave and paternity leave laws. A 2016 Pew Research study found the U.S. dead last among 41 countries for parental leave laws. Advocates say that lack of paid time off for new parents hurts America’s children, families, and society as a whole. But progress has been wildly slow. Could COVID-19 change all that?
Given crisis-level unemployment and spotty childcare, coronavirus has clearly brought new urgency and clarity to the need for paid leave laws. With Republican and Democratic politicians alike increasingly talking about the need for a national paid leave law, there’s hope that American families might actually get a break.
Katie Bethell, director of the paid leave advocacy group PL+US Action has worked for paid leave laws since 2006, passing laws in New Jersey and elsewhere. Bethell was inspired by stories of families struggling with the lack of paid leave protections, but the issue became personal for her when she helped care for her father-in-law in the final days of his battle with cancer. She’s now working with the Biden/Harris campaign to advocate for comprehensive paid leave. She spoke with Fatherly about her work, the state of paid leave and its future.
How does America’s Paid Leave policies compare with the rest of the world?
Katie Bethell: The U.S. is woefully behind the rest of the world. We’re one of two countries that don’t offer any kind of paid maternity leave. A lot of people talk about industrialized countries. I mean any country. Which is just awful. You think about how one out of every four women in America is back at work within two weeks of giving birth. And then when you think about caregiving leave or personal medical leave. Most other sort of industrialized countries have some kind of policy or structure that just provides basic support for families to care for each other without having to go into poverty. And I think that that’s a really important thing for the U.S. to reckon with. We demand that humans work. We need healthy human beings with healthy families to survive as a country and paid leave is a critical component of that.
And the other country without paid leave is Papa New Guinea, correct?
Yes. An excuse that opponents to paid leave might make about why we don’t have this policy is that it does have a price tag. But it’s a cost that nearly 100 percent of countries in the world have decided is important to the survival of their government and society. So I think it’s actually costing us a lot more to not have that policy in place than it would to have it.
Can you talk about that cost? How does the lack of paid leave harm American families?
At a macro level, the U.S. loses about $500 billion a year of activity by not having paid maternity leave. It also costs us actual lives, since paid leave lowers the infant and maternal mortality rates in many countries. At the individual family level, taking paid leave reduces postpartum depression. When both partners have paid family leave, it helps to keep families together through what can be a really stressful time. And we know that people who received family care, such as somebody fighting cancer, who has a family member who can care for them have lower healthcare costs and better health outcomes. So there are benefits across the board for individual families and for our entire country.
How are lower-income people affected by the absence of paid leave?
They’re left out in a couple of different ways, so just sort of big picture sort of context settings statistics. In the U.S. right now, people in the top income bracket are three and a half times more likely to have paid leave than the people in the bottom income bracket. That means that 94% of low wage workers don’t get a single day of paid family and medical leave. We have a national policy that allows people to take unpaid leave [The 1993 FMLA Act] but unpaid leave is useless for the large percentage of Americans who are living paycheck to paycheck. We already have families struggling. Not being able to take time away when you need to care for your family just adds burden to these families. When we design paid leave policy, we really need to put folks in the lower income bracket, folks in more vulnerable jobs and gig economy workers, at the center of our policy problem-solving. Because when we help the folks who are most vulnerable we’ve designed policy, that helps everyone.
It’s really common for people to use up their vacation and sick time — if they have that — in order to welcome a new child to their family. Once they’ve had that month or six weeks, all of their allowed time off with their employer is spent. If the new baby has any health issues — and I have yet to meet a baby that didn’t have something — then suddenly just taking care of that baby’s health issues puts your job at risk because you don’t have any more days off. And that’s just ridiculous. We should be investing the time and energy we need to make sure that our kids get a healthy start. And we have to support parents to do that.
How did you get involved in paid family leave?
I started out working on paid leave as an organizer who was organizing moms and really fell in love with the issue. When we talked about paid family leave, I learned so much more about them and their lives and their values and connected on a much deeper level than when I was talking about other issues. Because paid family leave is about caring for parents with cancer or taking leave when a baby was sick. It’s the stuff that really matters. It’s the times that really can both draw families together or without adequate support tear them apart. I just felt really moved by it as an organizer first. And then I got married and helped my father-in-law when he had cancer and helped my mom and had my own kid. You know, life happens.
Do we know how people use paid leave? It’s often associated solely with maternity and paternity leave but it extends beyond that.
The last data that the government released looked at why people use unpaid FMLA leave. And about half of the people who use that leave use it for themselves to recover from things like knee replacements or heart surgery or cancer treatments. 25% of people take leave to welcome new children to their families. And 25% take it to care for other family members. They’re caring for a spouse or a seriously old parent. So when you think about what Americans need in terms of support for care, it really is this whole constellation of moments when you need to focus on yourself and your family getting better.
Has 2020 and living through our pandemic made the urgency for paid leave more obvious?
Yes, definitely. In a poll of working people, half of working people said that they didn’t want to get the COVID test, even if they were feeling symptoms, because if the test was positive, they couldn’t afford to miss work. So you think about these individual choices that people are making every day in the context of the pandemic. Questions like ‘how am I going to pay my rent’ are front and center at a time when ‘how am I going to keep myself and my community healthy’ should be the priority. It’s a real failure of public policy.
You’ve advocated for paid leave since 2006. What’s changed in that time?
I think the conversation about men in caregiving roles has really grown, in a way that’s very important. I’m sort of heartened to see that shift. In 2006, it was about women really fighting to get into boardrooms and executive jobs. Then the backlash from that around women saying, ‘oh my gosh, I still have all these things at home.’ Now we’re seeing men coming in and really wanting to play an equal role at home. And that’s really exciting.
The policy conversation has definitely heated up. It’s an issue that Republicans are starting to take up and has been for a couple of years. And the culture around paid leave in businesses has totally transformed. I think it’s gone from something viewed as an elite benefit for corporate women who want to have it all to that’s really sort of table stakes for benefits packages at major companies.
Paid leave is often framed in terms of gender equality. But the benefits cross gender lines. How would men benefit from paid leave?
We have a whole arm of our work that’s just about engaging with dads. In that work, what I see is that this sort of male breadwinner idea that men can rightly take a lot of pride in, also causes a lot of pain. Because it denies fathers the access, and the ability to be loving, tender, engaged parents with their children. There’s something really profound and important about playing that role. Dads know it and feel it, and yet have been pushing up against the system that devalues them in those roles. And so when we talk about parental leave or even leave as a caregiver, f your mom’s sic or your mom falls down the stairs and you have to go to the hospital and your responsibility as a son is to be there. Paid leave is a policy that creates the space to connect with one of the most important parts of their humanity.
How do you persuade critics of paid leave to change their minds?
Men of a certain generation, guys who are maybe in their mid to late sixties and older, are an audience that has been slower to come to understanding this issue. And what I found most effective is I asked them, when you start to need someone to take care of you every day, who do you want to be there to take care of you? And they all say my daughter, if they have a daughter. And I say, could she afford to not work? And they say, well, no.
I recognize in that, that there are some, some sort of gendered ideas about caregiving that I’m not pushing back on when I talk about it in that way. But I think it’s an important access point. It’s a very human access point to think about what what you want in those moments and how we can re-imagine government as a tool for ensuring that you can have what you need in your final years of life.
Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representative Rosa DeLauro have been championing a family leave bill for years. Trump campaigned on paid family leave and he mentioned it in a State of the Union address. Marco Rubio and Ivanka Trump proposed a form of paid leave. So politicians are aware of the need on both sides of the aisle but nothing’s changed. Why?
When you see Republicans talking about paid family leave, what you see is a recognition that it has political currency with an important block of voters, like suburban women. Also, millennials care a lot about paid family leave. In some polls, it’s a top issue. So savvy politicians that need to engage with these constituencies know that it’s an issue that attracts positive attention. And I think there’s a big difference between talking about something for political currency and talking about it because you want to get it done. The Trump administration did not include paid family leave in their most recent policy platform. You might remember that the Republicans didn’t pass a policy platform. They just said, we’re going with what Trump says. And Trump didn’t include paid leave in his proposals.
I think what we’re seeing from this administration is a lot of lip service. Ivanka in the early parts of the administration did do some good convening and conversation building. Particularly with the business community. I think that contributed positively to opening up a conversation with some important constituencies on the conservative side. My hope is that with a new administration, that little window that the Trump administration opened is one that some Republican senators go through. And I hope Marco Rubio is one of them. I’ve met with him personally to talk about this issue. I think he sees the problem clearly. And my hope is that the ideology that prevents him from maybe imagining a more comprehensive solution is something that can evolve.
Rubio’s proposal involved offsetting the cost of paid leave by letting people withdraw from Social Security accounts early.
Rubio’s proposal is to borrow from your future social security. And then Bill Cassidy’s proposal is to borrow from future earned income tax credits, childcare tax credits. Both of which are just moving money that people would get any way and calling it something different. What most Americans need is more money, not the opportunity to move money around.
What makes you hopeful about the future of paid leave?
The coronavirus did something both terrible and important. It took the individual crisis of care that families are having all over the country and made that crisis happen all at once for everyone in the country. And when you have that kind of collective reckoning and awareness, you have an opportunity to move forward with bold policy. This is a moment where one of the important solutions to this crisis and to preventing the next one is comprehensive paid family and medical leave.
What do people get wrong about paid leave?
KB: People believe that we’re asking businesses to pay for it themselves, and that’s not the case. We’re advocating for a social insurance program like unemployment insurance or Social Security where the expenses are pooled. People need to understand it’s the most cost effective way to make sure that everyone in America can take this time that this is, this is basically what government is for. We know that we need to support the human beings in our country so they can have families and work. And the scale that you can do this at government makes it, um, the most effective way to do it, like doing this one by one employer by employer is not an effective way to achieve this. And it’s not what we’re advocating for.
Why can’t we just trust the market to reform itself? Many major employers offer paid leave already without a law.
Because that’s not how capitalism works. Capitalism is a system that’s built to extract value out of labor. And if you look at the most functional capitalist systems in the world, they all have discovered that truth and have built in really important protections, the same way that you protect natural resources. You say human beings are not an unlimited resource to be exploited with abandoned human beings. Our most important resource and the role of government is to be a check on capitalism so that it doesn’t eat itself alive. And what we’re doing in America right now with our workforce is literally eating it alive. We have to stop that. And the industries that are the most exploitive of workers also employ a lot of people. They’re not gonna do this on their own.