Banking

The problem with paid family leave: Just 20% of workers have it

Imagine missing a baby’s first smile, or a parent’s last breath. Not being able to hold your child’s hand during her chemotherapy, or help your spouse adjust to rehab or memory care.

For 80% of working people in this country, those are real possibilities because they have no paid family leave through their employers. Sixty percent have no paid medical leave to recover from serious illness through employer-sponsored disability insurance. So they come to work, stressed and distracted, because they fear losing wages or their jobs if they don’t; or they quit their jobs to recover from illness or care for a new baby or seriously ill family member, forcing employers to deal with turnover and cover the high cost of recruiting and training replacements.

Failure to provide basic paid leave has been a huge problem in this country forever. It’s become an even more devastating problem during the pandemic, which has sickened millions and forced even more people to take time off to care for relatives with COVID-19. Too many people have been forced to make an impossible choice between the income they need and the families they love because they have no paid leave. Too many employers have lost valuable employees they could have retained.

The United States is the outlier in the developed world in terms of paid leave. In other countries, paid leave is a core part of a common-sense care infrastructure people take for granted. Their governments recognize the simple fact that working people have family responsibilities, too. But that’s not the case here. Instead, paid leave is both scarce and contentious here, and that causes great harm not just to families but also to businesses and our economy.

There has been some progress. Six states — California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Washington — plus the District of Columbia have paid family and medical leave insurance programs in effect. They aren’t new or untested; California’s was enacted in 2002 and New Jersey’s in 2008. And paid family leave programs will take effect in Colorado, Connecticut and Oregon very soon. A large and growing body of evidence shows that these paid leave programs work well, both for working people and for businesses large and small, for women and men, and for local economies and our public health.

At the federal level, last year Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act, which included emergency paid leave benefits. Even though its loopholes left out more than 100 million working people, those emergency benefits were linked to a reduction in the spread of COVID-19 by as much as 400 reported cases per day. Yet in the face of fierce Republican opposition, Congress allowed the emergency paid leave benefits to expire — even though the pandemic emergency continues.

So we’re left with haves and have-nots. Working people who live in states that guarantee paid leave, or whose employers provide it, have this basic benefit. The rest of us do not.

Many banks already offer paid family leave, among them Bank of America, Citi, Barclays, M&T Bank and TD Bank. But leaving the question of whether to provide paid family leave to employers leaves millions without this crucial benefit — just 20% of our country’s private-sector workforce has paid family leave provided by an employer.

That’s a big problem, not just for working people and families but for businesses, too. Paid leave helps increase employee engagement and loyalty and reduce turnover, which leads to significant employer cost savings. Time and again, businesses in states with paid leave report that it helps or has no effect on their bottom lines. Businesses thrive with paid leave programs in place.

It’s past time to make paid leave available to everyone. The best way to do that is to create a national family and medical leave program that covers all workers, addresses the range of caregiving needs families face and is affordable and sustainable for both caregivers and businesses.

Such a policy advances families’ economic security, creates a more level playing field for large and small businesses, and strengthens our economy. It also advances racial equity, as workers of color are less likely than others to have paid leave, and universal family leave supports women’s workforce success.

Critically, any federal family leave program must be gender-neutral, providing equal paid leave to men and women. About three-quarters of people who take family or medical leave each year do so to care for family members with serious illness or to recover from illness themselves. It’s also important because babies and newly adopted children benefit from bonding with dads as well as moms.

Paid leave is a basic support that everyone needs. Working people, businesses and our economy will be stronger when it’s provided.

Editor’s note: This op-ed is part of a monthly series called “Deposits and Withdrawals” that offers different viewpoints on hot-button topics. The next installment, also on the subject of family leave, is scheduled to be published Monday.



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