A cure for working mothers during COVID-19 and beyond

A cure for working mothers during COVID-19 and beyond
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This past election season, we heard a lot about suburban women and working moms.

A new Morning Consult and Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) survey digs into the impact that coronavirus has had on working women and the results are shocking. It should be noted that though I work for BPC, I did not take part in conducting the survey, which found that while 22 percent of all women have left the workforce during the pandemic, 42 percent of women with children under the age of two have left work and 41 percent of women either left the workforce or know a woman who has. Caregiving demands are a key factor behind these numbers.

Think about that for a moment. 

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The proverbial work-life balance has perhaps never been more difficult to achieve. The pandemic has turned workplaces upside down and we are bearing witness to a clash of professional and personal responsibilities.

CBS News recently highlighted the plight of working mothers. One mom, Clara Vasquez in Sunnyside, Wash., is a home health aide. Her husband is a truck driver and they are raising a 7-year-old boy, Kevin, and trying to navigate virtual learning. They cannot afford a babysitter, so they rely on family and friends — varying by day. With this uncertainty, Kevin suffers from anxiety, asking every night who is going to watch him. 

Clara’s story is all too familiar. Like many women, she’s at risk of permanently leaving the workforce — a scenario that cannot be allowed to stand. We are on the cusp of taking leaps and bounds backward after decades of progress toward gender equality; wreaking havoc on millions of families, both financially and psychologically. Nobody would be better off. 

Yet even with this bleak outlook, there are policies that can help working families like Clara better balance work and life.

One critical opportunity lies in updating and expanding our national family leave policy. The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows some employees to take time off to care for themselves and loved ones. It is unpaid leave, however, and 40 percent of the workforce does not have access to this leave, even if they could afford to take time off. In fact, FMLA benefits are used most by those who need it least financially and used least by those who need it most. 

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Many Fortune 500 companies now have at least modest paid family leave policies available to their employees, and the Urban Institute has found that two states with paid family and medical leave laws, California and Rhode Island, were able to handle a surge in claimants caused by the pandemic and provide benefits to workers. 

The fact remains, however, that millions of American workers still do not have access to a dime in paid family leave benefits. They are either not eligible, cannot afford the time away from work, or both. 

The United States is one of the only developed nations that does not have a national paid family leave policy. The coronavirus has placed a magnifying glass over an already glaring situation. 

Until this pandemic is under control, the emergency paid family leave policies enacted earlier this year should be extended and expanded to meet the needs of working families now and prevent more women from leaving the workforce. Over the long-term, a national paid family leave policy would go a long way toward curing the economic and family malaise — particularly the challenges facing women — that has been enveloping us this year.

Adrienne Schweer is a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center and leads the organization’s Paid Family Leave Task Force. Follow the organization on Twitter @BPC_Bipartisan.