To beat COVID-19, working families need a national paid leave program

July 10, 2020, 4:01 PM UTC
MOUNT VERNON, NY - MARCH 26: Geri Andre-Major helps her son Max, 5, with his school work on March 26, 2020 in Mount Vernon, New York. Andre-Major said she was furloughed as a pre-school teacher at Chelsea Piers Connecticut on March 13, four days after giving birth, and her maternity leave pay abruptly cut off as schools closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Her husband was laid off as a chef consultant. The family left their apartment in New Rochelle, NY, hard hit by COVID-19, to live temporarily with Geri's parents. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
John Moore—Getty Images

As the Senate considers the Heroes Act—a $3 trillion stimulus bill recently passed by the House to stem the spread of COVID-19 and stave off a full-fledged depression—millions of families across America continue to suffer the health and economic impacts of the pandemic. And during this unprecedented time, working families across the country are speaking out about the specific challenges they face, exposing a common and disturbing theme: a lack of access to paid leave.

One mom who spoke to Paid Leave for the U.S. Action Fund (PL+US Action)—the leading national campaign to win a federal paid leave policy—talked about potentially being “forced to choose between employment and childcare.” Another was worried that our current system forces workers to “choose between getting paid and your health.” And many were concerned about unknowns that lie ahead. As one mother put it, “If my job transitions back into a non–work-from-home position, I don’t know what I will do as a single mom who can’t leave her kids home alone all day.”

Working families are voicing these fears as the pandemic demonstrates the importance of paid leave as an economic necessity. But now, we are also clearly seeing paid leave as a public health issue. Similarly, essential workers—disproportionately people of color with higher exposure to the virus—in many cases do not have access to paid leave and paid sick days and need time to get healthy. For example, only 8% of grocery store employees can take the two weeks doctors recommend to recover from COVID-19 without losing at least some pay.

Virtually every family in America is feeling the economic and health consequences of a system unprepared for workers who need time to recover from serious illness, care for a sick family member, or look after a child when schools and day-care centers are shuttered. Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike are simultaneously experiencing the need for paid leave firsthand. Voters across demographic and partisan lines are making their voices heard, and they want to see action.

A recent PL+US Action poll of likely 2020 voters in the battleground states of Arizona, Iowa, and North Carolina has helped shed more light on attitudes about paid leave and the impact of the pandemic. The survey found that 83% of voters support a national paid leave policy and see paid leave as one of the top solutions to the pandemic. It’s easy to see why: One in four of those voters also expected to take unpaid leave as a result of COVID-19. 

Both President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have shown an openness to expanding paid leave. Last year, Congress and President Trump extended 12 weeks of limited paid leave for the birth or adoption of a child to federal workers. Vice President Joe Biden has included paid leave in his presidential platform, and last month, announced his support for 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave. The momentum has been building, but the pandemic has made the need for action even more urgent. 

There are affordable, tested solutions for providing paid leave that are entirely within reach. Five states and Washington, D.C., have used social insurance models as the basis for their paid family leave programs, creating systems where everyone pays in a little, and the financial support is there when employers and individuals need it—just like Social Security or unemployment insurance. Three more states will be soon following suit. This type of model is the most affordable way to provide the highest-quality federal paid family and medical leave program, reducing the financial and administrative burdens on businesses while increasing retention and improving equity in the workplace.

States like California with established paid leave programs were well positioned to provide needed support to working families through this pandemic. But Congress should pass federal legislation like this to ensure all workers have access to high-quality paid leave. And the President should sign it into law.

In its current form, the Heroes Act would extend eligibility for paid family, medical, and sick leave benefits by removing exemptions to the program under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). It would expand access to employees at businesses with fewer than 50 or more than 500 employees, as well as to first responders and health care workers, and would allow workers to take emergency leave for a wider range of circumstances. It’s another substantive step in the right direction, but by no means does it represent the end of our shared efforts to secure paid leave for every person who calls the United States their home. For our work to be done, we’ll need a permanent, sustainable, national program that truly supports the workers who represent the financial backbone of this country.

We should always be able to put our families first—not just during global health threats. But right now, paid leave is absolutely crucial for ending the COVID-19 pandemic and this economic crisis. We need to ensure workers can stay home when they or a family member are sick, and give consumers the confidence to return to businesses knowing that employees are only at work if they’re healthy.

We have an unprecedented opportunity before us to rebuild an economy that supports all working families. But that starts and ends with strong, inclusive paid leave policies. With the lives of families across the country hanging in the balance, we simply cannot address this paid leave crisis with short-term solutions. The time for long-term, bipartisan-backed paid leave is before us. And it’s time to seize the moment.

Jimmy Gomez represents California’s 34th congressional district as a Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Katie Bethell is the executive director and founder of Paid Leave for the U.S. (PL+US) and PL+US Action Fund.

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