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Just the Facts… The U.S. Wants Paid Family Leave, So Why Isn’t It Getting It?

As policymakers let out sighs of relief after passing the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal, we start to turn our attention away from what was passed and instead look at what wasn't. Although the Deal promises Americans funding to roads, bridges, and rails, and the expansion of access to clean drinking water and high-speed internet, it lacks tangible social policy investments-- among them, paid family, and medical leave. Although the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has demonstrated the unpredictability of illness and disease, the United States will, for the time being, continue to lack access to a permanent, comprehensive system of paid family and medical leave. While Congress addressed this need during the pandemic by providing temporary emergency paid sick leave and emergency paid child care leave to some workers through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCA), there fails to be a permanent system in place for those who are sick and/or taking care of a newborn child. For workers without access to paid family and medical leave, they must often choose between recovering their health and caring for a loved one and keeping their job.

According to the Center for American Progress, only 20 percent of private-sector workers had access to paid family leave in 2020. In addition, low-wage workers are less likely to have access to different forms of paid leave. For instance, just 8 percent of workers in the bottom wage quartile-- who earn on average less than $14 an hour-- had access to paid family leave in 2020. Black and Hispanic workers are less likely than white, non-Hispanic workers to have access to paid family and medical leave. Furthermore, men are not guaranteed access to paternity leave upon the birth of a child, which has been demonstrated to promote parent-child bonding and can even increase gender equity at home. The equity implications are clear and instituting a permanent paid family and medical policy would help to close these significant gaps.

Paid family and medical leave offers wide-ranging benefits for individual and public health outcomes that extend beyond the context of the pandemic. For instance, paid medical leave allows for workers to pursue necessary medical treatment earlier and better manage ongoing treatment. One study suggests that access to emergency paid sick leave may have helped curb COVID-19 transmission in the United States. Other studies indicate that paid family leave is linked to increased women’s workforce participation and decreased gender pay gaps. From these findings, it is important to acknowledge that access to paid sick leave can decrease the spread of infectious diseases, such as the flu, in the workplace, as fewer people will attend work while sick. Consequently, having access to paid medical leave has led workers to experience less stress from financial insecurity during the pandemic.

The case for paid family leave is well supported, so the question becomes: why doesn’t the US have paid family leave? Despite Biden campaigning on paid family leave, the Democrats have failed to rally majority support around the initiative. Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV), along with Republican senators, oppose incorporating paid family leave into the Build Back Better Act. Manchin expressed concerns over the cost of paid leave. The original proposal of 12 weeks of paid leave was slashed to 4 weeks. Paid leave was even cut from the act, only to be added back by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on November 3rd. Although politicians are divided on paid family leave, the American public is not. According to a recent poll, over two-thirds of Americans support paid family leave. Another poll found that 74 percent of Republicans surveyed were in favor of paid leave programs.

Paid family leave may seem controversial in the US, but other countries see it differently. The US is one of only eight countries that does not guarantee paid maternity leave and the only high-income country without paid family leave. Other countries’ paid leave policies are not new. In fact, many have been around for decades. In 1998, over 120 countries had some sort of paid maternity leave, if not parental leave. Sweden, the first country to offer parental leave rather than maternity leave, has been providing parents 68 weeks of paid leave since 1974. Even the U.S. fight for paid leave spans a century. The International Congress of Working Women first demanded paid leave in 1919. This past month, as protestors for paid leave, gathered outside the capitol, their message was clear: paid family leave in the U.S. is long overdue. But if we cannot pass paid family leave now, then when?

Contributing Authors: Maya Ewart and Farah Schneider


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