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Paid Leave Is Coming to America. It’s Just A Matter of When.

An optimistic expert tells us why paid leave is going to happen — one way or another.

All around the world paid leave isn’t as contentious as it is in America. But that all could change. Eventually.

When now-President Biden was running for office, a major part of his campaign was the need for the United States to finally pass a comprehensive federal paid leave program in the United States. He, along with nearly every single Democratic Presidential candidate, pointed out that America is woefully behind the rest of the world when it comes to this basic security, ranking dead last among 41 countries when it comes to parental leave laws. The consequence: women in the United States do not participate in the workforce nearly as much as they do in other parts of the world, and the United States loses out on some 650 billion in GDP annually as a result of that fact. 

The need for the plan has never been more apparent. Throughout the pandemic, the economy has struggled and while supply chains get most of the headlines, the implosion and lack of affordability or access to child care, the non-existence of paid leave, shuttered schools, and poverty wages have shunted women, and in particular, those who work for lower wages in service jobs, out of the workforce. The economic devastation of the pandemic cannot be understated. In one month of the pandemic alone, every job lost was lost by a woman. While women have started to return to the workforce, the childcare system is still a problem — and the lack of paid leave is a disaster. 

There is hope. While the fight for a paid leave plan has been raging for decades, the Build Back Better Plan offers the current best chance for inclusion of paid leave — even if the plan is only four weeks long. It would simultaneously be groundbreaking and not enough.

Advocates like Debra Ness, the current president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, are fighting harder than ever, but not because they see an opportunistic moment, but a real change in the way the nation — and politicians — see paid leave.

“There’s been a paradigm shift in this country,” Ness tells Fatherly. “There’s hardly an issue you pull on that has such universally high support across party lines, across demographics, across geography. Whether it’s old, young, white, people of color, men, women, with or without children, all the groups that you can think of are supportive of paid leave. It’s not a partisan issue in the public’s mind.”

Fatherly spoke to Ness about the state of paid leave, what happens if it doesn’t pass, why we can’t let the market fill the need for paid leave, and why the federal government needs to be a part of the solution.

What’s the latest with paid leave in the Build Back Better agenda?

We’re feeling extremely optimistic given that it was put back in [the Build Back Better agenda] and as far as we know, there are no objections coming from any place in the House or the White House. The White House, in fact, has been very supportive of it being back in. 

It’s a very positive move. It reinforces the bottom-line importance of us thinking about the various pieces of the care agenda as part of an integrated infrastructure. We have to put [these pieces] in place in order to ensure that not just workers and their families can thrive but so that our economy can thrive. We need to make sure that women can get back into the workforce so we can be pumping more money into our GDP.

We are losing billions and billions of dollars — I think the last estimate is that the US economy loses 650 billion dollars a year in annual GDP as a result of not having women participating in the workforce at the same rate that they participate in other wealthy nations in the world.

We are really such an outlier on this front. And frankly, it’s really an issue of gender and race equity as well.

Right.

I think all of those things combined — the fact that it’s so important to families and workers thriving, it’s so important for the economy, and it’s such a central component of increasing gender and race equity in this country to make it possible for people to not [have to choose between] their caregiving responsibility and their income, their jobs and being able to ensure that we’re not constantly proportionately harming women and in particular women of color by ignoring the realities that they do most of the paid and unpaid caregiving in this country. And that so many more women would be able to re-enter or stay in the workforce if we had paid leave in place.

Why is paid leave back in while so many things that were cut remain on the chopping block? 

If you listen to the commentary from senators across the board, you don’t hear people saying they want to take that paid leave out. Even Manchin, who has been such an enigma through all of this, has never said he doesn’t believe in the need for paid leave, and he’s been meeting with his constituents. There have been so many efforts in his home state to make him aware how important this is to the people of West Virginia.

There have been caregiving parades, there have been meetings with constituents, one on ones of all types, power players, moms and dads, there have been ads, there have been banners in the West Virginia University football stadium. There has been an extraordinary amount of visibility, and lots of conversations. 

And nobody has reported back at the conversation when Senator Manchin says, “So sorry, no paid leave.” 

Paid leave is not new, it’s been in the administration’s proposals for a while. There was another conversation about a work requirement for the program… Well, you’re not entitled to paid leave unless you’re working! It’s about being able to stay in the workforce.

Ha, right.

There were conversations about it being means tested. It’s already geared to provide the bulk of support to families that are in the least favorable economic state. It is perfectly geared to make sure that it is helping folks who need it the most.

We have nine states, plus D.C, that have paid leave programs. We have lots of evidence of how well it works. It has worked well enough that in the first two States that implemented paid leave have already gone back to enhance it, and to expand the provisions that make it even more meaningful for the low-income workers. 

So, this is a policy that we know works, that we know is essential to making sure we’re not discriminating against women and people of color who do the bulk of caregiving in society. And it’s clear that it gives back to the economy rather than costing the economy and just to the rest of the world to see how absurd that we’re such an outlier.

You said we’re losing 650 billion dollars a year because women can’t fully participate in the workplace. That is such a massive number. That seems to suggest that businesses would really be behind such a program.

Well, the one thing I haven’t said yet is how much support there is in the small business community. I think the numbers are extremely positive on that front because most small businesses understand that, without a program, they have a really hard time competing with larger businesses, these huge corporations that have the money to offer benefits. 

A lot of main street businesses are run by family members who care about their employees and who want to offer this. It’s a hardship for the employer, and it’s a hardship for the employees who they’re invested in. 

I think another reason is public health. Do we need a better example than COVID of why it is so important for people to be able to stay home when they’re sick and not spread whatever it is that they have to others? And how do you ask people who are living paycheck to paycheck to stay home if that means that they could lose their job? Or to lose a part of their paycheck and then they can’t pay rent or buy food? What do you do if you have a sick child?

It’s great to make childcare, for example, more affordable, but when your child’s sick or there’s an accident, or there’s a terrible tragedy, or your spouse is in the hospital, are you going to leave them there by themselves because of your fear that you might lose the job that you all depend for your food and rent? Or your ability to keep your health insurance? So, from a public health point of view, we know that it’s lower-income communities where people don’t have things like paid days and paid leave, and that’s where contagious diseases spread the fastest. 

So, it is really a public health imperative. People need to take care of themselves or take care of their loved ones when they’re sick. And there’s also plenty of evidence that productivity is an issue. How productive is an employee that has to work sick? How productive is an employee that’s on the job worrying about their sick child or their parents? Those are some of the hidden but very significant costs of not having paid leave.

Right, and the implicit point there is that the market cannot solve this problem fully.

Oh, for sure. We have been talking about paid leave for decades in this country. It is clear that without there being a federal program, we will not have universal participation or availability. We’ve been talking about this long enough to know that not every employer wants to offer it, not every employee will be able to take advantage of it or be eligible. The only way to guarantee that it is universally available is to make sure that it is a federal program. 

Could states just fill in the gaps, like Colorado, California, and Washington State have?

Well, we know that the states that are least likely to offer it on their own are the states that are likely to have the highest concentration of low-wage workers, and who suffer as a result of not having paid leave. 

Worst case scenario: there’s no paid leave in the Build Back Better plan. What’s next?

So, I don’t have a crystal ball. But we’re at a point where there is widespread understanding of the need. If you look at the public demand, it’s off the charts.

There’s hardly an issue you pull on that has such universally high support across party lines, across demographics, across geography. Whether it’s old, young, white, people of color, men, women, with or without children, all the groups that you can think of are supportive of paid leave. It’s not a partisan issue in the public’s mind. And then you look at what’s been happening in Congress and you realize despite all this debate and all the running around, the overall cost of the bill and the partisanship, you don’t hear people speaking against paid leave… it’s no longer a question even among Republicans. 

It’s really a question of how we should do it, and how it should be paid for. We have moved the needle so significantly. I can’t even begin to speculate but it is clear to me that we will not stop fighting for paid leave because it is a policy whose time’s come.

There’s been a paradigm shift in this country. And I can remember the days when our culture has made the struggle of juggling caregiving responsibilities and work feel like an individual problem, and if you’re not making it work there’s something wrong with you. You’re not working hard enough or you’re not smart enough or whatever it is. Because we come from a mind of, “Pull yourself up from your bootstraps, and if you work hard the world is yours.”

I think that there’s an appreciation of the fact that life gets all of us. No matter how hard you work, people get sick, accidents happen, tragedies, cancer, pandemics. Myriad things happen in the course of all of our lives when we need some time. And that’s something that is true whether you are pulling yourself up from your bootstraps or not.

And it just makes sense to not punish people for life.

Right. Not to punish people for life. In this country, we have devalued caregiving. We have done that that partly because from our beginning, we viewed it as the work of either women or people of color. To the extent that we don’t put policies or resources behind caregiving and create a meaningful infrastructure to support it, then we are still devaluing caregiving and in effect devalue women and people of color and that’s discrimination. That’s racism and sexism, plain and simple.