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Paid Leave Is the Workplace Equalizer That Americans Deserve

America lags behind, well, everyone when it comes to paid leave policy. The result? A cycle of socio-economic and racial discrimination goes on and on.

The United States practically stands alone in the distinction that this country, one of the wealthiest in the world, doesn’t offer federally mandated paid leave to its 155 million employed citizens. In contrast, of the 193 United Nations countries, only a handful of countries don’t provide paid leave: New Guinea, Suriname, a few islands in the South Pacific, and, of course, the United States.

The closest that the country has come to catching up with the rest of the world is through the Family and Medical Leave Act, passed in 1993, which granted 12 weeks of federal, job-protected, but unpaid leave to eligible private and federal workers. 

There are very real upsides to this legislation: It gives millions of American workers job-protected federal leave, not just for the birth of a child, but also for medical events of their own, to caretake for others, or to adjust to the adoption of a child. Still, this is unpaid leave. Even then, it doesn’t cover every worker in the United States. Employers required to offer FMLA have to employ 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius of the worksite, an employee must have been employed for at least a year to be eligible, must have worked at least 1,250 hours to be eligible. 

In other words, the FMLA is not a true national paid leave policy, and millions get left behind because of it. “It was predictable that women and people of color would be left behind [from the FMLA],” says Erika Moritsugu, the Vice President for Congressional Relations and Economic Justice at the National Partnership for Women and Families. “We’re very proud of the unpaid FMLA. It’s helped millions of people. But 61 percent of workers in America don’t have access to even the FMLA act, because they either weren’t covered by the law, or they can’t afford to take unpaid leave.”

In 2019, more than 32 million workers couldn’t access a single day of paid sick leave, and 4 out of 5 workers did not have access to paid family leave. Only 43 percent of Black workers and 25 percent of Latinx workers have access to paid parental leave, and about 65 percent of Black parents and 75 percent of Latinx parents are ineligible, or cannot afford, to take the unpaid leave under FMLA

Paid leave issues are racial justice issues, says, Moritsugu, and the link between comprehensive paid family and medical leave and racial, economic, and gender justice is clear. To talk about paid leave, says Moritsugu, is to talk about racial and gender economic justice — and how the combined crises of COVID-19, the child-care shortage, massive unemployment of women, and people of color, all lead to one road: federal paid leave. Here, Moritsugu walks us through the issues. 

What has this current moment — with millions of people but especially women, out of work, and no federal, permanent paid leave plan, showing us?

We come to this moment knowing that a paid family and medical leave policy was always important, particularly in the lens of gender justice and racial equity. But the pandemic has laid bare how bereft we are without that policy in place. We see the results of the inequities that were built into a system. We see the results of policy choices that were built on sexist and racist values. We see women and people of color are left behind. When my predecessors were fighting for the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), [having it be unpaid] was a compromise that we made to get the bill passed and enacted.

So a lot of people don’t take the FMLA because they genuinely can’t afford it?

There are disproportionate impacts [of the lack of federal paid leave] on people of color. 62 percent of Black adults are either ineligible for, or can’t afford to take unpaid leave. Only 43 percent of Black workers report having access to any paid or partially paid parental leave, compared to 50 percent of white workers. 

Why are people of color less likely than white people to have access to paid family and medical leave?

The first is race-based discrimination in employment. Racial disparities and access to wealth and wealth building are compounded by a lack of access to paid family and medical leave. There are disparities in access to other economic support that make it more difficult for families of color to absorb the financial shock of a serious family or medical leave event. 

Those disparities include employment discrimination, poverty, economic instability, and the fact that people of color are concentrated in low wage jobs, and don’t have the scheduling flexibility of paid leave. People of color tend to receive lower quality health care services and access, and they experience worse health outcomes than white people. That magnifies their need for paid family and medical leave.

And here we draw back again to the crisis that we’re in — the combined public health and economic crisis during COVID-19.

I read in The New York Times that the highest group of people who have lost their jobs during COVID-19 are actually moms of color.

Women of color suffer most from a combination of these challenges. 74 percent of Black moms are the key, or sole, breadwinners for their families, compared to 45 percent of white moms. And Black and Latina mothers are more likely than white women to report being laid off by an employer, or quitting their jobs after giving birth in order to have time off.

Can I talk to you a little bit about dads?

Absolutely! Please!

At the National Partnership for Women and Families, we usually look at the world through the lens of women, their families, and their community. These policies that I’m talking about are gender neutral. Men need these protections, too.

Counter to the pernicious lies and stereotypes about absent Black fathers that have been peddled about for decades, black fathers are more likely to be involved in care for their children than fathers of other races. 

The Centers for Disease Control issued a report that found that Black dads are more likely to provide regular physical care like bathing, diapering, and dressing their young children. They read to them, they help with their homework more often than other dads. They’re also heavily involved in care for other family members. 

Nearly 3 million Black men take care of an adult family member or non-relative and 2 to 3 million black million serve as a primary caregiver for a family member. I think that belies what we observe in the world because people talk about it with that stigma — about women as the default caregivers, which is totally the case — but it ignores this other part of the caregiving picture that hasn’t served us a lot.

And it also underscores the critical piece of the comprehensive nationwide Paid Family and Medical Leave program. [It needs to be] built on equity. It must include leave for caregiving, whether it’s for a new child or an aging parent.

Paid leave is definitely not just a mom’s issue, and leaving it at that will leave out a ton of caregivers.

Half of the men in the workplace expect to need the time to care for a sick, disabled, or older family member. So that’s the same share as women. There was a study that found that only one in 20 fathers in professional jobs took more than two weeks off when their most recent child was born — and 3 out of 4 took one week or less. 

Low income fathers face even higher barriers. There was a study of disadvantaged families that found that nearly 60 percent of [low-income] fathers reported nearly zero weeks of paid time away from work after the birth or adoption of a child. Sometimes, this is because men face stigma when it comes to taking time off to take care of a loved one. Taking time away from work for family caregiving has brought harassment, discrimination or mistreatment that results in fathers being less likely to take the leave that’s available to them. 

So, not only is it about who gets the leave, but also, how we help create a culture where dads want to or feel comfortable taking it. I’m sure this is especially tough on single parents, especially in a pandemic where child care supports have crumbled alongside a lack of fully comprehensive paid leave.

It’s almost stating the obvious when you look at the data. It’s almost like we didn’t need the data, because it’s intuitive. The crunch that single parents face, being the sole breadwinners and sole caregivers in a time of economic downturn, where women are leaving the workforce, where daycares are closing or shuttered, there’s limited, or very risky in person schooling… 

[Making the choice to leave the workforce] really isn’t a choice, right? It’s not a fair choice and it’s not a sustainable choice. Are you going to choose your own health, or your loved one’s security, over a paycheck? And how do you support your loved ones and yourself without the paycheck?

It’s a choice out of a terrible subset of options that aren’t freeing at all.

Especially because our system is based on racism, sexism, misogyny and xenophobia, this system that we’re in depends on who your employer is, whether or not you’re going to get health benefits — whether you’ve got paid family and medical leave. It’s all tied to being attached to the labor force. And these latest job numbers that we saw, where all of the job losses [in December] were attributed to women leaving the workforce…

For folks who are on the front line who are forced to go to work, who have to make the choice between going to work sick or bringing that sickness back home where there might be folks who are compromised, especially in communities of color that are women-household led, where these are multi-generational households just by tradition, this situation is untenable.

But they might get fired, or they might have run out of leave, or leave might not have been available to them [if they are scared to bring COVID back to their loved ones]. These types of choices aren’t real choices. It’s kind of head spinning to think about how folks are making do. How can we possibly think this is sustainable? It wasn’t even before the pandemic.

Can you lay out to me how having access to paid leave can actually help families maintain and grow wealth?

Wealth building barriers are compounded by a lack of access to paid family and medical leave. Paid leave focuses on the moment of need — when [being able to take paid leave] is necessary — and when the results of it are made crystal clear even though it was observable beforehand. 

People of color experience historical, and policy-based barriers, to economic security and stability. Those effects are exacerbated when serious medical and family needs arise. 

So, compared to white people, Black people, LatinX folks and Native Americans tend on average to experience much higher rates of poverty and economic instability. They’re paid less. The typical white family has $140,500 in wealth, compared to $6,300 for the typical Latinx family and $3,400 dollars for the typical Black family. Black and Latinx families have fewer resources to draw upon to weather a period of unpaid leave. 

Lower wage jobs that do not offer paid leave on a voluntary basis are disproportionately represented in communities of color, even though the business case is there for them to offer paid family and medical leave or even paid sick days. 

What difference do wage jobs — which are held primarily by people of cover — versus salaried jobs, make, in the consideration of a paid federal leave program?

The gig economy is not a new thing, especially in communities of color. My family has always been a part of the gig economy. Picking up work where they can, not having the 40-hour week desk job. And again, that goes back to the tie to the workforce. This means that depending on what we call the “Boss Lottery,” you’re at the mercy of the place that you work, and where you work. 

And paid federal leave would get rid of that boss lottery?

There’s a bill that just got reintroduced to Congress last Friday by hundreds of members of the House and the Senate. It’s called the Family Act, led by Rosa Delora of the House and Kiersten Gillibrand of the Senate.

This bill includes the lessons that we learned since the passage of FMLA — what the gaps are in coverage, and gaps in access to the unpaid leave. We also learned from the experience of the states that have been implementing paid leave and paid family and medical leave. We’ve learned from some of the design aspects that were needed in order to ensure greater equity and access for people of color and women, and they’re embedded in the Family Act.

The principles of the Family Act include making sure that there’s job protection, so that folks don’t fear the loss of jobs [for taking leave], for availing themselves of a protected right of leave. So there’s job protection, there’s progressive wage replacement, where the lower you’re paid, the higher the reimbursement. That’s important because in the lower wage workforce, people of color and women are disproportionately represented.

So the Family Act accounts for that?

The leave taking needs to be comprehensive. We love mommies and babies, but we need to be able to care for someone who is sick, including a newborn. Or you need to be able to take care yourself, if you get sick, or if you’re trying to accommodate your own disability. Or if you need to take care of a partner, or a parent, or another loved one. 

Another component of the Family Act that is very, very important is an inclusive definition of what family is. Because right now it’s basically that traditional, nuclear family, that many families like mine don’t even recognize in the household. And there are loved ones who you are related to by blood or affinity. They are as cherished, and you’re as responsible for them, even though there’s no blood affinity. That’s really super important in certain cultural enclaves. 

One of the beauties of the design of the Family Act is that it’s a social insurance program that is tied to the individual worker. So you’re not subject to the boss lottery. It pays into a trust fund. It comes out of the payroll tax, where an employer pays into a trust fund and the employee also pays equal amounts into the trust fund. So, that benefit, that protection, is tied to the worker. So they get to carry it with them, even if they separate from that original employer.

Think of the veterans community, where folks are really isolated. They need somebody to caretake for them and they may not have access to blood relatives. In the LGBTQ+ community, where marriage and parenting rights may not be yet in effect, that

is really important. Those are a canvas of equity issues that would make this paid policy have greater equity features, in addition to the fact that it’s paid — not unpaid. You can afford to take it.