Paid family leave would advance gender equality — but the details matter

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After its near-death experience, paid family leave is back on the federal agenda. Hopefully, this time it stays for good. On the heels of a stinging defeat in last Tuesday’s elections, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif) resurrected the paid family leave proposal by adding it back to Biden’s budget bill, set for a vote on Nov. 15. 

National paid leave represents a real step forward in gender equality, especially for working women of color, like myself. Though it has its limitations, national paid family leave would address gender wage gaps that potentially occur at two key points in one’s lifespan — childbearing and caregiving.

Many men and women do each of these things with grace. And it’s natural to expect that many of us would experience childbearing or caregiving at some point in our lives, or we may already know someone who does.

Research suggests that racial and gender discrimination, harassment in the workplace, and long gaps from work because of family caregiving all have contributed to a gender wage gap that  women still feel today.

The federal paid leave proposal doesn’t solve all these problems, but it meaningfully chips away at it.

When women do not have paid time off after having a baby, nearly 30 percent of them drop out of the workforce within the first year. However, in states that have implemented paid leave, women are less likely to leave their jobs in the first year and more likely to see an increase in earnings. 

Paid family leave helps fathers as well. Having men at home provides them an important time to bond with their child, equalizes household work, and allows women to continue to thrive in the workforce. 

And then there’s caregiving. Nearly 50 million unpaid caregivers live in the U.S., and most of them are women. 

As a doctor working in the hospital, I frequently encounter caregivers who are vital in shaping a patient’s post-hospital support system. Nevertheless, only 13 percent of workers in the U.S. have access to employer-based paid family leave.

Paid leave would help prevent caregivers from choosing between caring for a loved one and maintaining job security. But it’s imperfect. The provision only provides four weeks paid leave, which may not be long enough for caregivers to reap the benefits. It also does not appear to have job protections, which could disincentivize low earners or people of color who otherwise would be eligible for the program.

Despite the drawbacks, the provisions are a vast improvement over the previous administration’s proposals, which would have workers trade paid leave for delayed Social Security benefits. That would have adversely affected low- and middle-wage earners who may not have the flexibility to push back retirement

The next few days will be contentious. We await a new budgetary estimate and a vote in the Senate. If passed, paid leave would begin to level the playing field for women across the span of their careers. Let’s undo the false choice between family life and financial stability and start recognizing the importance of both. 

Federal paid leave represents a new era for me as a physician and woman of color. And its astonishing survival only solidifies the importance of passing it now.

Courtney Lee is an associate fellow of the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics and a clinical fellow in the Division of General Internal Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

Tags Family caregivers Gender equality gender wage gap Nancy Pelosi paid leave

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