Editor’s Note: Vicki Shabo is a senior fellow for paid leave policy and strategy at New America, a think tank in Washington, DC. She has testified before Congress multiple times on America’s need for paid family and medical leave. The views expressed here are hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
This week, Congress has begun wrestling in earnest with a fourth coronavirus relief package that could dramatically shape — for better or worse — what the next several months look like for people, families and businesses across the country.
If we’re serious about reopening schools and child care centers safely and getting parents back to work, one item that must be on the agenda is an expansion and extension of emergency paid sick and family leave benefits, provided by employers and reimbursed by the government.
Back in March, before we understood the virus as we do now, Congress passed historic but inadequate paid leave legislation that covered approximately half the private sector workforce and provided exemptions for millions more workers in small businesses, health care and emergency response jobs. According to the Center for American Progress, in all, the legislation left out as many as 106 million workers — disproportionately lower-wage workers, women, Black and Latinx workers — creating health, economic and care crises that now must be addressed.
Although some in Congress may feel like they’ve already checked the paid leave box or oppose any federal intervention in paid leave at all, their work is far from done.
Universal paid sick and family leave is a complement to much-needed funds for unemployed workers, child care centers, schools and small businesses. By mitigating the spread of illness and promoting fidelity to quarantining protocols, paid leave is essential glue that will allow businesses, schools and child care centers to re-open and stay open. In contrast, without universal access to paid sick and family leave, what’s now Week 19 of lockdown for my family and so many others across the country will easily reset to Week 1 if policymakers push kids back to school and businesses to return to “normal.”
Essential workers in retail, health care and food service have it even worse. As health care worker Marilyn Washington, a 71-year-old home health aide from Texas, explained on the Crisis Conversations podcast produced by the Better Life Lab at New America, the impacts on her and family members with underlying health conditions are dire: “I feel worried and stressed… I don’t want to stop working because the patients that I work for – they really need me… And then I have my family to think about also. I have both my brother and my older sister – both of them are sick and I take care of both of them.”
Washington was excluded by the law by virtue of her profession: Congress permitted employers of health workers to deny emergency paid leave. Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that one in four workers (17.7 million) without federal paid leave protections are health care workers – disproportionately women, people of color and low-wage workers.
Congress also excluded workers in businesses with 500 workers or more in its first attempt at paid leave lawmaking in this pandemic. As a consequence, Cyndi Murray, a Walmart employee from Maryland with 19 years of tenure but no federal right to emergency paid sick time, told my colleagues and me that she worries about bringing the virus home because she “can’t afford to stay home.” Ondrea Patrick, an Aldi’s supermarket worker, lamented in another episode of the Better Life Lab podcast, “They may say I’m essential but they don’t treat me as such… I shouldn’t feel like, if I’m not feeling well, I need to still get up and go to work so I don’t lose my job.”
In addition, the emergency paid leave law permits employers with fewer than 50 employees to deny paid leave to parents whose child’s school is closed or child care arrangement unavailable because of Covid-19, if the business asserts that providing paid child care leave would create a financial hardship, an operational interruption or a worker shortage. An analysis by the US Department of Health and Human Services found that the small business exemption could result in stripping paid leave protections from up to 87% of poor and low-income working parents. With onsite school a part-time endeavor for most kids this fall at best, these parents are at risk of losing their jobs or searching in vain for safe surroundings for their kids.
Democrats included much-needed corrections in the HEROES Act, which passed the House in May. The HEROES Act provisions would make emergency paid sick, medical and family leave more comprehensive in coverage and scope so that workers like Washington, Murray and Patrick are included, longer term personal and family health needs are covered, and employers would be eligible to receive federal tax credits to offset the costs of paid leave through 2021.
But President Donald Trump has declared the HEROES Act “dead on arrival” in the Senate, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has not signaled paid leave expansions will play any role in the legislation he will unveil this week. Republicans have shown an aversion to ensuring basic paid leave access to all workers, despite the over 3.7 million people in the United States infected with Covid-19, 140,000 dead and outbreaks at essential workplaces.
Notwithstanding new analysis from the Urban Institute showing paid leave programs helped working families and businesses mitigate harm and unexpected costs at the onset of the pandemic, they fail to acknowledge that a national paid leave program would have helped families this year. And they ignore the needs of 53 million family caregivers and nearly 38 million workers at high risk of Covid complications.
To the extent Republicans acknowledge the need for public policies, they continue to support proposals that contemplate individual workers borrowing against their future financial security through delayed, reduced Social Security benefits or reduced child tax credits, rather than by creating new, sustainably financed systems.
In fact, the only proposal floated by a Republican lawmaker to address paid leave as part of Covid-19 relief would present parents of new children with the ability to receive $5,000 in their child’s first year in exchange for a decades-worth of reduced child tax credit amounts. This is a loan, not paid leave, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities put it when Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Republican, and Arizona Sen. Krysten Sinema, a Democrat, first introduced the idea as a support for new parents last year. And even this may prove to be a non-starter with Republican leadership.
Congressional Republicans’ failure to embrace a universally applicable national emergency paid leave policy suggests they are either unaware of, or content with, the economic and health disparities that the status quo perpetuates, especially for low-wage workers, who are both more likely to be in workplaces excluded by the legislation entirely and to fall within its exemptions.
Congressional Republicans’ intransigence perpetuates race and gender disparities as well. Black and Latinx workers have lower rates of paid sick time but higher rates of Covid-19 and less access to quality health care.
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The GOP’s position also fails to reckon with likely long-lasting gender-based effects of this crisis, in which women may disproportionately leave work to provide care for children or infirm family members – potentially calcifying employers’ implicit and explicit gender biases and setting women workers back for decades.
The United States is at a crossroads in examining how systemic failures contributed to the Covid-19 pandemic. Lack of access to paid leave is one of those failures. Washington said on the Crisis Conversations podcast, “I’m praying that the government looks at it and gives us paid sick leave. They have to understand that we’re putting our lives on the line.”
Lawmakers across party lines should come together to fill the gaps in the March emergency paid sick and family leave legislation – and create sustainable permanent policies in answer to Washington’s prayers. Paid sick time and paid family and medical leave protect us all. This isn’t partisan; it’s common-sense.