Editor’s Note: Vicki Shabo is a senior fellow at New America, a Washington, DC, think tank, where she focuses on paid family and medical leave and other work-family policies that advance gender, racial and economic equity. She has testified before Congress multiple times on America’s need for paid leave and other policies that support women’s workforce participation and earnings. The views expressed here are hers. Read more opinion at CNN.
Elon Musk recently announced that Twitter’s once news-making 20 weeks of paid parental leave would be drastically cut to two weeks. At 2 weeks old, most babies are sleeping 14 to 17 hours a day and waking every two to four hours to eat. Parents who have given birth are still physically hurting, swollen and possibly bleeding.
Because paid family and medical leave is so rare in the United States – according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, just 24% of private-sector workers had access in 2022 to paid family leave to care for a new child and only 4 in 10 have short-term disability insurance to address their own serious health issue – many parents face an unenviable decision: Go back to work or stay home and lose pay.
Currently, federal law only requires some employers (those with 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius) to provide unpaid, job-protected leave through the 30-year-old Family and Medical Leave Act. As a result, according to a US Department of Labor-commissioned study, 44% of workers do not even have this basic level of job protection.
Workers in lower-wage and service-sector jobs face particular precarity and always have. Paid leave benefits are even less common, jobs are less stable overall and offer less flexibility and predictability day to day.
Workers’ lack of financial security, along with fears of workplace retribution, contribute to the fact that, per a Department of Labor-commissioned report, an estimated 23% of moms in the US who have given birth have gone back to work within 10 days. Less than 5% of fathers take two or more weeks of parental leave, according to a study published in the journal Community, Work & Family.
But professional, higher-wage workers at companies that have in the past extolled their paid leave benefits, such as those who recently saw their paid leave cut at Twitter, might have assumed they had more security. And with good reason: In the second half of the 2010s, tech and financial services companies tried to distinguish themselves in a bid for talent by offering generous paid leave policies and other benefits to attract and retain sought-after workers. And, to be sure, some still are still motivated to do so. The business research group Just Capital recently recognized six companies’ paid parental leave policies, citing strong evidence that they help boost retention.
However, in reality, security, stability and family-friendly policies have never been guaranteed – and high-wage workers are currently facing a new round of uncertainty. Layoffs in tech and other high-paying professional industries have been widely reported.
Earlier this year, The New York Times reported that tech job cuts were affecting new parents, who had relied on generous paid leave policies when selecting employment only to find that a layoff severed them from access.
In this moment, where both lower- and higher-wage workers have no guarantee of much-needed benefits, there is a new opportunity for mindset change – and policy changes.
It’s time to decouple benefits such as paid leave and child care from employment and start creating systems that allow everyone – no matter their job or employment status – to access the resources they need. A national paid family and medical leave program, with benefits provided through a government fund – similar to Social Security and other paid leave programs that operate in 11 states and the District of Columbia – is one approach. National child care investments that dramatically increase the number of child care slots and offset costs for parents while improving job quality for child care workers is another essential public investment.
Policies that would have done both of these things passed the House of Representatives in 2021, but failed to be considered by the Senate when West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin announced he would join 50 Republicans in opposing the House bill.
Investing in care policies is great unfinished business in America, and it’s in the interest of all working people to demand completion. Fortunately, President Joe Biden has proposed major new investments in paid leave and child care policies in his fiscal year 2024 budget, which – if acted upon by Congress – would fund versions of the programs that passed in 2021. Care policies were featured in the president’s 2023 State of the Union address and in opening ads for his reelection campaign – signaling the administration’s intent to keep pushing.
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In Congress, there is a new a bipartisan paid family and medical leave working group urging House leadership in both parties to take action; what that could look like is still under consideration. Temporary child care investments enacted as part of the American Rescue Plan Act will soon face funding cliffs, which means child care providers and families need policymakers to act.
There is an opportunity for voters to come together to demand a little certainty. By guaranteeing access to paid leave for every working person in the US and by making it easier to find affordable, high-quality child care no matter your job, the government would create a modicum of stability that people need and that employers could always improve upon. The ability to care for ourselves and our families is central to who we are. No boss – Elon Musk or anyone else – should be able to take that away, and it’s time for all of us to encourage and hold policymakers accountable for taking action.