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Emergency paid leave is just good business

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Even before the global pandemic stripped our households of critical care infrastructure and resources, America’s working families were stretched to the bone trying to make it all work. The need for adequate paid family leave policies had been growing by the year, with public policy struggling to catch up with the realities American workers had been facing on the ground. 

Now, as contagious illness continues to spike across the country for the 12 consecutive month, keeping schools and daycare centers shuttered, pushing parents out of the workforce in unprecedented numbers, and in many regions driving local economies to a standstill, the situation for our parents has become increasingly grave. 

Moreover, a multitude of public school districts around the country continue to operate almost exclusively online. Simultaneously, many child care programs report financial instability and an increasing likelihood to shutter permanently, foretelling dire long-term consequences for an industry already struggling to meet demand in pre-COVID-19 operating conditions. Now, as the supply of child care has decreased even more dramatically, the most intense strain has been put on our lowest income families.

This has massive ripple effects in our economy as parents, facing little alternative, depart the workforce to care for their children or vulnerable loved ones — or both. Parents constitute roughly a third of the workforce in the U.S. and have been losing approximately eight hours per week of work productivity due to child care responsibilities during the COVID-19 crisis. An astounding 42 percent of women with young children have left the workforce since the pandemic started, and almost 20 percent of all parents who left the workforce report doing so because of school closures or loss of child care. 

Many workers, meanwhile, do not have a single day of paid family leave.

As we grapple with bouts of illness and novel caregiving responsibilities, emergency paid leave has helped to stave off widespread hardship, allowing many workers, and significantly more women, to remain attached to the workforce while protecting them from unnecessary viral exposures. A recent Health Affairs study highlights significant evidence that the sick leave provisions in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) led to 400 fewer confirmed new cases per day in states that didn’t previously have leave protections. For businesses, this translates to lower employee illness rates and turnover during the pandemic, and overall increases in productivity and morale. We need more of this. 

And yet, amidst unprecedented political turmoil at the end of last year, Congress failed to extend key parts of the emergency paid family leave provisions authorized in the FFCRA package last March, leaving them to expire at the year’s close.  

The FFCRA measures provided parents facing school closures or diminished child care options roughly 10 weeks of emergency paid family leave and another two weeks of paid sick leave. 

While these protections are no longer guaranteed to workers by statute, the program can still be used by qualifying companies on a voluntary basis through the end of March. The Consolidated Appropriations Act signed into law by President Trump in December extended the dollar-for-dollar payroll tax credits used by companies to finance emergency leave, offering a life raft to the embattled program. 

And with the Biden administration’s newly released $1.9 trillion plan to combat COVID-19 and provide nationwide economic relief, there is substantive reason to be optimistic about the fate of our nation’s first comprehensive paid sick and family leave program.  

The Biden proposal calls for reauthorizing and expanding the FFCRA protections, providing 14 weeks of paid sick and family leave while rightly eliminating large company and federal workforce exemptions. It has been estimated that this version, if passed in its entirety, would provide protections to an additional 106 million American workers. 

The timeline for negotiating and passing such an expansive package, however, is likely to be somewhat protracted in a divided legislature with razor thin Democrat control. In the meantime, the current paid leave extension should be seen as a critical bridge for participating employers during what is shaping up to be an extremely challenging winter. 

Offering employees paid leave is no longer a federal mandate, yet it is still a viable option for the multitude of businesses. To the greatest extent possible, our businesses should exercise this option. It is not only the right thing to do, but will serve to keep our state and its people healthier, happier and more productive.

It’s just good business.  

Maggie Cordish was the policy adviser to White House adviser Ivanka Trump on paid leave and family policy. She is a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

Tags biden administration Child care COVID-19 daycare facilities Donald Trump Ivanka Trump Paid Family Leave paid leave schools workforce

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