I’m writing this story while taking two weeks off from my full-time job to recover from an unusually bad flare-up of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety. I know I won’t be fired because my leave is covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), a 1993 bill that allows employees who have worked at least 12 months for a company with more than 50 employees and have worked a certain number of hours to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off for qualifying medical and family reasons.
FMLA is designed to protect a person’s right to take time off to have and care for a new baby, care for an adopted child, care for a family member with a serious health condition, or recover from serious health issues without fear of being disciplined or fired. It sounds good, but only 60 percent of workers in the United States have access to FMLA, and many of them don’t take leave—or take less than they need—because they can’t afford to take unpaid time off. At many companies, mine included, employees are required to use all accrued paid time off while they’re on family or medical leave. I’ve now depleted all my paid time off, so though I’ll be paid for my leave, if I have another flare-up (or if my kid gets sick or something else renders me unable to work) I won’t be able to afford to take more time off—even though I still have 10 weeks of FMLA leave left.
Lots of U.S. workers are in the same boat. According to a 2017 study by the Pew Research Center, when workers in low-wage jobs take family or medical leave, they’re more likely to put off paying bills, use public assistance to make ends meet, or take on debt to cover expenses. And stories of employers who punish employees for taking leave has led to increasing numbers of workers who live in fear of getting sick, being harmed in an accident, and even using an ambulance because one unforeseen circumstance can spiral into a financial catastrophe. It doesn’t have to be this way.
The United States is still the world’s only developed nation that does not offer a paid family and medical leave policy. Currently, 57 countries guarantee at least 14 weeks of parental leave at two-thirds salary. Many countries, including Bulgaria, Hungary, Japan, Austria, and Norway, provide more than a year of paid parental leave, and Estonia offers an astonishing 87 weeks of paid parental leave. In America, where many people have to choose between caring for a new baby and putting food on the table, women of color bear the brunt of this policy failure because they comprise the majority of low-wage workers.
The United States’ refusal to offer paid medical leave is especially galling when we consider it intersects with gender norms. Women do the majority of the work of pregnancy, childbirth, and infant feeding and care, and they’re also expected to take on the majority of other family care—of sick spouses or children, for instance, or of ill or aging parents. This means that women have to temporarily leave the workforce more often than their male counterparts. When that leave is unpaid, they take a financial hit that can reverberate for years. If their leave is unprotected and they lose their job as a result, they may reenter the workforce at a lower salary or it may take them longer than they can afford to find another job.
We know that employers are less likely to hire mothers, hire them at lower salaries, take women who are parents or caregivers less seriously, and see us as less committed to our jobs, so in addition to the opportunity costs associated with being away from work, we’re also more likely to get passed up for raises and promotions. A combination of these factors widens the pay gap, with the result that women, on average, make less than half what men make over a 15-year period: just 49 cents for every $1. This disparity has a major impact on women’s long-term financial stability: Compared to men, we have less money saved for retirement, reduced social-security benefits, and less savings. That makes it harder for us to do things that might establish financial security and build wealth, like saving for a down payment on a house or putting up capital to start a business.
Women of color are disproportionately represented in low-wage, low-quality jobs, and they make less money than both men and white women, so these financial consequences are most severe for them. Paid leave won’t fix all of these issues, but it can help reduce the difference in lifetime earnings by keeping women in the workforce and making sure they’re still earning when they need to opt out to care for themselves or their families.
The National Partnership for Women and Families, a non-partisan, nonprofit policy advocacy organization, provides an outline of the ways racism makes the consequences of lack of paid leave especially impactful for families of color. They point out that racist policies and practices that still persist—discriminatory mortgage and educational lending, redlining, discrimination and segregation in education, and racist hiring and promotion practices—result in families of color having less access to wealth accumulation than white families, and thus fewer resources to draw upon should a serious medical or caretaking issue arise.
And though mutual aid—these days more commonly known as “crowdfunding”—has become the norm in the United States to help people cover medical and other costs when social safety nets fail, there’s less to go around in communities of color. Paid leave would ensure people still have income when they need to take time off instead of having to rely on their communities for financial support they may not be able to afford. More than two-thirds of the American public agrees that paid family leave should be available to all workers, even if they disagree about how it should be paid for. Eighty-two percent of Americans support parental leave for mothers, according to the Pew Research Center. And though paid family and medical leave has been on Democrats’ radar for years and has quickly become a legislative priority for progressive candidates, broad social support now makes it a safe legislative priority even for Republican lawmakers.
GOP candidates have shied away from the topic of paid family leave because it could cost small businesses, inflate government spending, and encourage mothers who would otherwise be home with the children to enter the workforce. But as Republicans begin vying for women’s votes in the next presidential race, this is one way appeal to them while reinforcing the party’s “family values” messaging, journalists Stephanie Akin and Simone Pathé explain in a March 2019 article for Roll Call.
Currently, two pieces of Republican legislation stand to offer unpaid leave disguised as paid leave, though neither seems likely to pass. The Cradle Act, proposed by Republican Senators Joni Ernst and Mike Lee, would guarantee up to 12 weeks of paid leave for new parents by allowing them to borrow from their Social Security retirement benefits. Senator Marco Rubio introduced an almost identical bill that’s supported by Ivanka Trump. Under these plans, parents could access Social Security payments while on parental leave for up to 12 weeks and then pay themselves back by delaying their retirement by a duration double that of their leave. (A six-week leave, for example, would mean a 12-week retirement delay). The Social Security system would pay out benefits now, but they would not be repaid for about 30 years.
Women have to temporarily leave the workforce more often than their male counterparts. When that leave is unpaid, they take a financial hit that can reverberate for years.
Since Social Security is projected to run out of money by 2037, putting an even greater strain on the system seems like a terrible idea that will just accelerate its demise. If the system does survive, parents who take a single leave under this policy would see a benefit reduction of 3 percent, and those who take four leaves would lose up to 10 percent because Social Security benefits are calculated based on lifetime earnings, meaning that the Social Security benefit they receive during their parental leave would not count toward their income in the benefit calculations. As with existing unpaid-leave policies, this one would end up costing parents in the long run, and mothers would lose more than fathers because they are more likely to take longer leaves.
Democrats have a more sensible plan that would be funded by a mix of payroll and employer taxes of two-tenths of 1 percent each (about $2 per week for the typical worker). Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representative Rosa DeLauro have proposed the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (FAMILY), which would guarantee 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave to all workers at two-thirds of their salary. An important policy distinction between the FAMILY Act and the Cradle Act is that the FAMILY Act guarantees paid leave for family caregiving and personal medical leave, whereas the Cradle Act only covers parental leave. More than 200 Congressional Democrats, including five of the 20 Democratic presidential candidates, have cosponsored the bill. And a federal program like FAMILY could be supplemented by states, some of which have already enacted paid family and medical leave policies, including California, New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island, and a handful of other states are working on legislation.
It’s clear that we need to come to agreement on a well-designed, responsibly funded paid family leave policy. Women have become an increasingly larger share of the labor force–though “women entering the workforce” has historically been a white women’s narrative. Women of color in the United States, Black women in particular, have been in the workforce (often as caregivers for white people) out of economic necessity. However, the data shows that the portion of infants living in households where all parents work was 50 percent in 2016 compared to 20 percent in 1976.
It certainly seems true that this issue is more pressing for more Americans given these demographic shifts, but this issue has been impacting the health and financial security of families of color for years and it only became a priority when pressures on white families increased. But maybe we are actually paying more attention to the needs of people of color and workers in low-wage jobs. Maybe the good activist work folks are doing all over the country is making us all more attuned to the impacts of income inequality, racism, gender discrimination, and ableism. And maybe that has created the momentum we need to enact a paid family leave policy. Whatever the reason, let’s hope this political momentum carries solid legislative proposals all the way through to the president’s desk.