By Andrew Keshner
America went into the pandemic as the only highly developed country without a national paid family leave policy, and it looks like it’s going to stay in that spot for the foreseeable future.
Thursday’s stripped-down version of a bill strengthening the social safety net includes money for initiatives such as free preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, another year of enhanced child tax credit payments and the extension of expanded tax credits pegged to health care costs.
But money for national paid leave is not in the framework, a casualty of Capitol Hill negotiations that tamped down costs on the Build Back Better act that’s now estimated to be worth around $1.75 trillion. At one time, the plan was 12 weeks of paid leave, then down to four weeks.
“No one got everything they wanted, including me, but that’s what compromise is, that’s consensus. And that’s what I ran on,” President Joe Biden said Thursday. Six months earlier, Biden called for 12 weeks of paid leave, saying , “no one should have to choose between a job and paycheck or taking care of themselves and a loved one — a parent, spouse, or child.”
It’s a bitter pill for paid leave advocates, especially during a pandemic that’s underscored how little wiggle room employees — especially mothers — have when work duties collide with caregiving.
“It’s outrageous in the midst of a global pandemic,” said Molly Day, executive director of Paid Leave for the United States, a national advocacy organization. “It’s truly unconscionable and it’s what the Democrats ran on in the last election, and it’s what they need to deliver on,” she later added, saying there’s still time to press for the provisions before the bill gets passed.
There are many policies in the bill that, if passed, would be “transformative for American families,” Day emphasized. But right now, in her view, the victory rings hollow without the prospect of paid time off that “touches people at all stages of life.”
Paid Leave for All, a campaign pressing for the issue, said “access to paid leave is the very foundation of caregiving — and the playing field will never be even without it.”
“We cannot build back better — or build back at all — without a national paid family and medical leave program that supports all workers, especially women, who need time to care for a new child, a seriously ill family member, or their own serious illness,” Sherry Leiwant, co-founder and co-president of A Better Balance, said in a statement.
Low-wage workers and women of color, who are least likely to get paid time off, will shoulder the consequences the most, she said.
The federal Family and Medical Leave Act lets eligible workers take 12 workweeks of leave during a 12-month span for events like the birth of a child, or to care for a spouse, child or parent with a serious medical condition. But that’s unpaid leave.
Though a handful of states have state-level paid family leave programs, the majority do not. Meanwhile, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act — a law passed in the pandemic’s early stages — authorized paid leave for pandemic-related events like quarantining during a COVID-19 infection or caring for a child in remote schooling.
This year, 23% of private sector workers and 26% of state and local government workers had access to paid family leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
When Harvard University and University of California, San Francisco researchers polled service sector workers in fall 2020, they found that 28% went through a life event that could have conceivably enabled them to take time off.
Within this group, half did take the leave and they were more often white workers (52%) than Black (37%) or Hispanic workers (48%), the researchers said.
For those who didn’t take time, nearly three quarters (71%) said they could not afford to do so. One third of these workers said they worried about losing their job and one quarter said they felt pressure to get back to work.
Women and men were just as likely to take leave, but 69% of women said they were unsatisfied with the time off, versus 62% of men, the researchers said.
The Build Back Better act comes at a time when there’s a sharp labor shortage.
Some critics say government benefits and payments have created disincentives to work , but others counter that it’s barriers like too little time off and expensive childcare that are keeping people out of the workforce.
Even if more employers may be considering enacting or expanding leave benefits to entice workers, that will not be sufficient, said Day. Millions of women are sidelined from the job market now because of the lack of care and leave options, she said.
Workers have been relying for decades on private sector benefit decision about whether and when workers can get time off, Day said. Even with an uptick, “it will not be enough to provide a comprehensive, robust an equitable policy for every American,” she said.