American Workers Need Paid Leave, Fast

Because of the pandemic, more Americans are becoming caregivers. Photo: Photothek via Getty Images

At some yet-to-be-determined point in the future, the pandemic will end. Cases will go down, as will the death toll. Public life will resume. But when it does, it probably won’t look much like it did last year. Without swift federal intervention, the recession created by the pandemic could damage the economy for the long-term. Weak welfare supports, including the absence of universal paid leave, may help explain why.

In the U.S., paid family leave is a luxury, not the status quo. A quarter of the American workforce lacks paid leave; according to Pew Research Center, that figure doubles for workers making less than $13.80 an hour. Uneven access to leave has far-reaching implications for workers and may even blunt the usefulness of pandemic relief bills, a new poll suggests.

Sixty-three percent of workers on unemployment insurance said they would return to work sooner “if they knew they had access to paid family leave,” Morning Consult and Bipartisan Policy Center report. They say that without it, they’re struggling to balance caregiving with the process of finding new jobs, which is in keeping with earlier research. A 2012 paper from the Center for American Progress noted that, according to the available data, “access to any form of parental leave, paid or unpaid, makes women more likely to return to work after giving birth.” Women with paid maternity leave remained with their employers more often, instead of quitting because they had no other options.

That same lack of flexibility may now plague a larger share of the American workforce. More American workers now report having caregiving responsibilities because of the pandemic, the poll found, and without universal access to paid leave, the path back to work can be difficult, if not practically impossible. Parents, for example, can’t easily transition in and out of the workforce if paid leave isn’t there to facilitate — and single parents often face the biggest disadvantages of all.

The poll also usefully illustrates the cracks in the U.S. government’s response to the pandemic so far. As the Bipartisan Policy Center notes in a brief, the Families First Act, passed by Congress in the immediate wake of the pandemic, did include a version of paid leave. But it didn’t cover everyone. Ninety-four percent of workers who are now on unemployment said they “did not know or have the option of using paid leave from their employer.” That figure includes workers who were, in fact, eligible for paid emergency leave due to the Families First Act, and didn’t realize it, which itself might reflect older, broader problems. Paid leave, again, is not universal, and many workers aren’t used to having it. Over half of all parents who had quit their jobs because of the pandemic say the closures of child-care centers and schools forced them to do so, and 37 percent of caregivers who had quit say they had to look after a sick relative.

Caregiving also limits the amount of time an unemployed worker can dedicate to finding a new job. “While looking for work is the primary activity of most unemployed persons, 26% of all UI recipients (roughly 8 million workers) primarily spend their time caregiving, including 59% of parents and 29% of those not actively looking for work,” the brief continued. Unemployed workers of color are hardest hit, and express the greatest need for paid leave. “73% of Black and 67% of Hispanic workers told pollsters that they would be more likely to return to work if they had access to paid family leave,” it added.

The pandemic may have created some unavoidable new responsibilities. Sick loved ones need tending, and the closures of schools and child-care centers remain a necessity in much of the country. Those needs will probably persist for as long as the pandemic endures. Legislators could relieve their constituents, if they wanted to, but to date, help is inadequate, and late, when it even arrives at all. Workers need allies, and Congress is coming up short.

Senate Republicans deserve much of the blame. The level of spending required to blunt or end the recession contradicts the GOP’s fiscal ideology, which prioritizes low taxes and small government. Its interest in relief is fickle. President Trump has extended aid to farmers and has bailed out airlines; teachers probably can’t count on the same level of support. The party’s intransigence could have wide-ranging consequences. Public schools and child-care centers need immediate federal aid if both sectors are to avoid significant, and potentially permanent, job losses. The $600 unemployment benefit that kept the Bipartisan Policy Center’s pool of respondents afloat will expire this weekend. Republicans want to reduce that payment to $200 per week. Circumstances don’t look promising for paid leave either. The FAMILY Act, co-sponsored by Democrats Rosa DeLauro in the House and Kirsten Gillibrand in the Senate, would guarantee workers 60 percent of their wages for 12 weeks a year, but it has little Republican support.

Without Republican concessions, middle- and working-class families may be unable to rejoin the economy when it reopens. That creates an obvious practical problem. The economy can’t recover from a radical recession if the workforce bleeds people. Recall, too, that this possibility only exists because the U.S. offers scant social welfare. That means, too, that we don’t have the infrastructure in place to keep a pool of unemployed individuals — and their households — out of poverty.

There’s an ethical dimension to this problem as well. An overweening emphasis on rebuilding the labor pool can trip all the worst clichés about the Protestant work ethic. For most people, work is a means to an end, not a vocation. There’s no special dignity in waged labor. But the absence of paid leave is the absence of choice, too. People who want to work outside the home can’t. At the same time, the federal government doesn’t compensate people who would rather be caregivers. The work they perform goes unrecognized as such. An unfortunate cycle reproduces itself. Precarity is entrenched, which fuels the expansion of a massive underclass. Progress for historically marginalized groups will stall. We know from previous research that caregiving responsibilities fall mostly to women. We know, too, that people of color are more likely to live in poverty and thus are less likely to be able to afford professional caregiving help.

The Bipartisan Policy Center recommends the inclusion of paid leave in the next congressional stimulus plan. It’s right, but more permanent — and more generous — solutions are necessary.

Want to Help the Economy? Pass Paid Leave.