A new report from the Urban Institute found that during the COVID-19 pandemic — specifically from the period between March 2020 to February 2022 — workers without access to paid leave lost $28 billion in wages compared to the two years prior. The study also found that workers without paid leave lost an average of $815 for a week of missed work. Although the number is startling, it’s not exactly shocking.
The United States is the only wealthy nation in the world without a federal paid leave program. The government does offer 12 weeks of job-protected, unpaid leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) for qualifying private and federal employees, but there is no federal program for private workers that replaces wages in the event of childbirth, becoming a new parent, sickness, sickness of a family member, or any other emergency that might come up over the course of a worker’s life. A handful of states offer state-wide paid leave programs, and some workplaces offer it as part of their benefits packages. But benefits are not guaranteed. And the ramifications of that lack of access are astounding.
The report shows that, from March 2020 to February 2022:
- there was a 50% increase in number of work work absences because of illness, child care needs, or family/personal needs compared to the two years prior
- there was a 60% increase in the “weekly unpaid absence rate, among all workers,”
- that less than half of all absences were paid
- there was an 81% increase in illness-related work absences
- That childcare related absences were the least likely type of absence to be paid during the pandemic — just 24% of absences paid
- that just 34% of “family or personal” related absences were paid
- that just 45% of worker illness absences were paid
- that workers of color, women, and households under $100,000 saw the largest increases in unpaid absences from work
- that women were 42% more likely to not be paid for absences from work
- that 82% of child-care related absences were taken by women
- that 65% of absences for family and personal obligations were taken by women
- That low wage workers earning less than $25,000/a year were even more likely to not be paid for their days off work
Previous Fatherly writing has expounded on this: sixty-one percent of workers don’t even qualify for the FMLA — either because they don’t meet the requirements or because they can’t afford to take unpaid leave. Thirty-two million workers couldn’t access a single day of paid leave in 2019, before the pandemic began. Per the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP,) less than 50% of Black workers and 25% of Latinx workers have access to paid parental leave. The majority of Black and Latinx parents either don’t qualify for or can’t afford the federal unpaid leave program.
As Erika Moritsugu, the former Vice President for Congressional Relations and Economic Justice at the National Partnership For Women And Families said in early 2021 when Fatherly spoke to her about the lack of paid leave: “The pandemic 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.”
And, like Mortisugu noted in 2021, the workers who were hit the hardest by unpaid leave and lack of sick days were women and people of color.
As a result of these unpaid absences — the Urban Institute researchers assumed an average of five days of unpaid leave per worker — employees missed out on $28 billion more in wages than they did prior to the pandemic due to workplace absences.
It’s clear that the lack of a federal paid leave program during one of the most unprecedented periods of public health crisis had a massive, negative effect on American workers. But there is still no federal paid leave program. President Biden pitched a federal paid leave plan as a part of his Build Back Better agenda, a legislative set of priorities that largely have not come to pass — besides the bipartisan infrastructure act and the Inflation Reduction Act. Whether or not Democrats will fight for a federal paid leave policy any time soon remains to be seen.
“Our findings suggest the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on workers and their families through an unprecedented increase in health and caregiving needs, forcing millions of workers to be absent without pay. Missed wages from unpaid leave have affected populations already at greater risk of severe COVID-19 infection and of economic and material hardship, compounding existing economic, racial, and gender disparities,” the Urban Institute notes.
You can check out the full report from the Urban Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation here.