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Paid family and medical leave is a civil right

September 2, 2021, 3:00 PM UTC
Paid leave for new parents "is not only the morally right thing to do, it’s also good for business," writes Ryan Williams.
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My wife Danielle and I are expecting our first child this fall. We couldn’t be more excited or grateful to grow our family and welcome our son to the world. The way we’ve started stockpiling diapers, onesies, and gadgets I don’t even understand probably makes us look straight out of a sitcom. And as we prepare for a fundamental change to our world, we recognize with a great deal of humility our privilege to afford the basic necessities (and plenty of non-necessities) that seem to arrive at our apartment every day.

We also recognize the privilege that both of us will be able to take ample time away when our son is born and maximize our bonding time with him.

Danielle works in financial services and I’m the founder and CEO of a financial technology company. Both of our workplaces have generous family and medical leave policies, offering more than 3 months of paid parental leave. And while that may be increasingly the norm for corporate America, it’s the exception for many workers—and especially for the majority of Black Americans like us. 

Days after my mother took me home from the hospital, she was back to working. In my hometown of Baton Rouge, paid leave wasn’t even a term people were familiar with for new mothers, let alone for new fathers. And when you’re living paycheck to paycheck, even a few extra days to care for a newborn or recover from childbirth can be financially impossible. 

While paid family and medical leave policies have been steadily embraced by more white-collar employers, essential industries such as education, health, transportation, and hospitality are among the least likely to offer adequate paid leave. This is yet another example of the wealth and racial opportunity gap in America expanding, rather than contracting. Because blue collar employers are more likely to employ women, people of color, and low-wage earners, the very individuals who most need paid family and medical leave are the least likely to have access to it. In fact, 44% of workers don’t even have the option of taking unpaid leave, even if they can afford it, because the Family Medical Leave Act excludes many types of work. This particularly impacts Black Americans, who are 83% less likely than white Americans to be able to take leave when they need it. 

It’s heartbreaking that the situation hasn’t meaningfully improved from my parent’s generation to mine. The United States is the only industrialized nation in the world that doesn’t offer a federal paid leave policy, which is lose-lose for employers and employees alike. Companies are forced to make decisions that have a massive impact on the health and well-being of all Americans, and individuals are forced to make impossible choices between family, health, and financial survival. 

This is a clear opportunity for equitable public policy that can improve public health and help close the racial wealth gap. Right now, legislation to create a federal guarantee of 12 weeks paid family and medical leave is working its way through Congress with the support of the White House. I’m proud that my company, Cadre, which levels the playing field for investors, also helps level the playing field for our team by offering an equitable leave policy. Now we need to get this critical legislation to the finish line. My company and many others understand that paid leave is not only the morally right thing to do, it’s also good for business. The Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress reports that employees who are forced to take unpaid leave often don’t return to their jobs, and all of us who are engaged in hiring talent know that replacing talent is far more expensive than the cost of paid leave. 

As we work toward a national paid leave program, companies should consider it a floor, not a ceiling. The private sector can add a layer of flexibility on top of what the government mandates, and that’s essential because every family’s circumstances are different. For example, I realize that my job running a tech company won’t allow me to fully disengage for an extended period of time, and that’s okay. Danielle and I are actively thinking through a plan that will allow each of us to find the time we need to care for our son and support each other, recognizing that the demands of our respective jobs won’t completely disappear. After we get through the first days after bringing our baby home, we’ll plan check-ins with our offices around his nap schedule (and I imagine I’ll probably be guilty of sometimes taking a call while feeding him). And the arrival of a baby is just the start. We also need to recognize how many family moments can come up unexpectedly, like a sick kid, a childcare challenge, or an elderly parent in need of care. 

There’s no perfect or one-size-fits-all solution or blanket policy for every parent, caregiver or family. But what we know beyond any doubt (especially in light of the challenges we have faced over the past year) is that time to bond and acclimate—and recover in the case of new mothers—is essential to the physical and emotional health of our nation. This shouldn’t be a privilege for those who are fortunate enough to have a certain kind of job. It needs to be a right for all of us. 

Ryan Williams is founder and CEO of the real estate investing technology platform Cadre.

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