No, Senator Manchin — Americans cannot wait for paid leave
The President’s Build Back Better Act is at risk of being delayed or jettisoned by opponents’ stated concerns about inflation. And, even if Build Back Better moves forward, its historic paid family and medical leave provisions are in jeopardy because of the preference of one Democratic senator, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, to wait and move later on a bipartisan path.
Delay is misguided. If policymakers are serious about addressing Americans’ concerns about the rising costs of living, they’ll pass the country’s first national paid family and medical leave program as part of the Build Back Better Act with haste. Americans are already overwhelmingly supportive of national paid family and medical leave as part of the jobs, families, climate and care bill and concerns about costs should make them even more so.
Without paid leave, working people and families are forced to make difficult choices between paying bills and meeting their basic expenses and providing or receiving care. Deborah Davis of Ona, West Virginia recently wrote that when her second daughter, Rylee, was born with significant disabilities that kept her in the ICU for six weeks and in need of services for all of the 11 years she lived, Rylee’s dad had to return to work soon after her birth because “there was no medical leave and house, utility and grocery bills still loomed.” Davis had to learn to care for her daughter’s substantial needs on her own.
In a survey of cancer patients released this month, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network reports that 74 percent of patients needed leave from work, and 69 percent needed more than four weeks away. More than four in ten (43 percent) said missing work caused financial hardship — and women, middle-aged workers, low-income workers and workers with less education and workers in Southern states were especially likely to say the financial impacts were very difficult.
Today, just 23 percent of workers have paid family leave through their jobs to care for a new child or a seriously ill loved one; only 40 percent have personal medical leave through an employer-sponsored temporary disability insurance program. An estimated 34 million workers live in one of the small number of states that provide or will soon provide paid family and medical leave, but more than twice as many more do not. Yet family and medical leave needs are common — about 15 percent of workers take leave and another 7 percent need a leave they cannot take each year. That’s because taking an unpaid leave can be untenable: Researchers estimated in 2018 that, nationwide for a median wage worker, a six-week unpaid leave means losing $4,600, which is equivalent to about four and a half months of rent — and that was before costs started rising quickly. Our research shows that the typical cost for four weeks of housing, gasoline, groceries, health insurance and student loans for families comes to $2505.
Americans’ inflation concerns — concerns about the rising costs of goods and services — are squarely addressed by the Build Back Better Act’s paid leave provisions, and this is especially true for lower-wage workers who have less access to paid leave and less ability to absorb the financial shock of unpaid leave. Under the Build Back Better Act, workers with a qualifying care need would receive up to 85 percent of their wages, capped at about $814/week.
Paid leave would also stave off longer-term financial harm precipitated by unpaid leave. For example, after the implementation of California’s paid leave program, researchers estimated a 10.2 percent reduction in household poverty among mothers of one-year-olds and a 4.1 percent increase in household income. Gains were larger among single mothers with lower levels of education and lower incomes, who often have few other supports. California’s program also decreased food insecurity among households with new children, especially lower-income families and families with more than one child. And California’s program has shown positive effects on labor force participation for new parents and caregivers, which contribute to households’ financial stability and earnings.
Manchin suggests that paid leave can wait. He says he can find bipartisan support in 2022 for a proposal funded through shared payroll contributions like the FAMILY Act, a proposal Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) have championed since 2013, and programs in nine states and the District of Columbia. But after nearly a decade of work to secure bipartisan support for the FAMILY Act in Congress — by Gillibrand and DeLauro, hundreds of advocacy organizations, and thousands of impacted people — not a single Republican senator has expressed support. In fact, in May 2021, Senate Republicans railed against the FAMILY Act during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing, taking particular aim at its funding mechanism. It seems safe to say that bipartisan agreement on national paid family and medical leave is not coming soon.
Paid leave is an urgent need for the country and for individual families. By replacing a significant share of a worker’s pay at the very time when their costs are growing, paid leave helps people to buy the food they need to feed their families, the medicines, diapers and medical supplies they need to provide for themselves or a loved one, the utilities they need to stay warm in the winter, the gas they need to get to and from medical appointments and the housing costs they must meet in order to keep a roof over their heads. These are costs that cannot wait, just as paid leave as a national priority cannot and must not be delayed any longer.
Vicki Shabo is a senior fellow for Paid Leave Policy and Strategy, Better Life Lab, at New America, a Washington, D.C. think tank; Shabo has testified numerous times before Congress regarding paid leave and workplace policies.
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