Family

The U.S. Could Soon, Finally, Embrace a Globally Popular Policy for Families

A woman and her son are seen from behind, walking and holding hands on a gated sidewalk.
A child and parent walk near primary school in London on Jan. 4. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

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The U.S. as a country still hasn’t made much progress on paid family leave. It’s a predicament that parents and caretakers across the country have faced for generations: When they need it the most, the social safety net has left them without any workable options. Some workers are guaranteed up to 12 weeks’ unpaid leave, but not everyone can afford to do that. Rapidly rising costs of living and wage increases that barely keep up with inflation mean that having a baby in this country is more financially daunting than it’s ever been. COVID made things even more complicated, showing us that the people we depend on to keep this country from falling apart—mothers, caregivers, home health aides, child care workers, essential workers, and service workers—have little to no formal support and are on the verge of falling apart themselves. Pushed to their limit, hundreds of thousands of women left the workforce in 2020. Without big changes, will they ever be able to return?

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The U.S. is the only rich industrialized nation without a universal paid family leave policy. For much of the past year, Chabeli Carrazana, an economics reporter for the 19th, has been chasing down the myriad economic situations families—and, in particular, women—have been finding themselves in. But, it looks like we are closer than we’ve ever been to ending that embarrassing legacy, thanks in part to the way the past year has exposed our system’s flaws. On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Carrazana about whether we are living through the final days of the industrialized world’s most arcane family leave policy. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Chabeli Carrazana: We were at a point, before the pandemic, when women were more than half of the labor force. It was a tiny number—50.04 percent—but women becoming more than half the workforce had only happened two times in history. Then the pandemic happened. So many of the jobs women had were in hospitality, customer-facing sectors that disappeared, and then we had all these other women—who were at home with their kids trying to manage child care without child care options, school without in-person school—who were dropping out of the labor force in astronomical numbers. At one point in April 2020, nearly half of all moms were out of the labor force. When that happened, there was this huge focus on why there was no support for these women to remain employed. So this recession was a big catalyst for talking about many of these issues, particularly paid leave, child care, the child tax credit. Part of the reason paid leave is being discussed now is that it’s grouped into this group of policies that a lot of advocates felt should have been in place before. When we didn’t have them, we really felt what that looked like. And we saw very viscerally in our homes, in our offices, in our living rooms, what that looked like, the fact that we didn’t have it.

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Erin Ryan: Right now we’re in a situation where it seems like a lot of these issues are coming to a head. The U.S. and Papua New Guinea are the only two countries in the world that do not have any guaranteed paid family leave, but the U.S. does have a social safety net. Can you walk us through the history of how we got a social safety net but never, ever bothered to patch the hole that is supposed to provide for people who need to care for sick relatives?

We have the Family Medical Leave Act and that passed in 1993, I think. It took years of advocacy to even secure. Yes, you can take 12 weeks maximum of unpaid leave from your job and still retain that job in doing so. It’s often what a lot of folks take when they birth a child, when they have to care for somebody. We as a country have been completely immobile on this subject for a long time, even as other countries have gone and expanded their paid leave policies. Norway has been offering paid leave to fathers for 30 years. Sweden has offered it for 47 years. The United Kingdom in 2015 enhanced its policy so that parents can take up to 37fully paid weeks between both parents. But in the U.S., this topic wasn’t getting a lot of traction.

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Then in the past few years, that started to shift a little bit. Even President Donald Trump mentioned paid leave in several of his State of the Union addresses, and Ivanka Trump was big on paid leave. We had several Republicans come out in support of paid leave. And then in this administration, we have now a president who understands paid leave from a personal perspective: He lost his wife in his 30s and had to care for his two young sons. So paid leave was a big thing for him. And we’ve seen this gradual shift in the past few years where paid leave has risen to be a major topic, where now we are discussing a potential policy—a potentially universal policy, a federal policy—and not just discussing it, but clearing a pathway to passage.

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Can you talk a little bit more about what the federal paid leave policy that is currently being considered looks like?

What the Biden administration proposed was a two $225 billion universal paid leave policy, and that would be phased in over a decade until it hits 12 weeks. It’s changed a little bit since then, but initially that’s what it was. It would replace at least two-thirds of hourly wages, up to $4,000 dollars a month. So it’s not fully paid—at most, you’re going to get that $4,000 a month and leave reimbursements. And the lowest-wage workers would have 80 percent of their full wages paid back. We have this potential reconciliation package, which Democrats are trying to pass through Congress without needing any Republican votes to pass it, and it’s very likely going to have some version of this paid leave proposal.

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It’s a starting point, at least—I know a lot of advocates are not happy with the 10-year phase-in, and I don’t think that will get support from a lot of Democrats. What we’ve seen in some other states is that they’ll have the employer pay in to a fund, like a pot of money that is used for paid leave. And then the state will also have its own funds. So for every 40 hours that you work, you get an hour of paid leave and that starts to accumulate over time. The big question we have with this Biden plan and this reconciliation package is we don’t quite know how they’re going to structure it. We’ve got very broad strokes. And there’s Republicans who want to see this as a tax credit in a completely different structure, versus having it as this large federal payment that we cover.

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At the same time that more of Congress is getting on board, movers and shakers in the business community are also wising up to the benefits of paid family leave.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the largest business group in this country, is in support of federal paid leave. It just quibbles with some of the details of it: Members want to see it with a preemption, that the federal law will preempt all of the state laws or the local laws. The reason behind that is it’s a little bit more seamless for businesses to operate across state lines if they’re not having to deal with different states’ different ways. The Biden plan doesn’t have that preemption, but the chamber is at the table talking about it.

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Who are the forces fighting against paid family leave?

The National Federation of Independent Businesses has been a vocal opponent. It represents small businesses, and it’s particularly opposed to this a one-size-fits-all mandate versus just encouraging firms to do what works for their staff. The airline industry has also come out against a lot of local paid leave policies and have been at odds with a few states over their policies because the industry argues that those laws complicate their operations for staff who operates across state lines. Those are the big ones, but there’s not a ton. I think a lot of folks would like to see something where they get some help—from a state or from a local municipality or from the federal government—because they see the value in retaining employees, making sure they don’t come to work sick, giving them some flexibility for their kids. A lot of the businesses I’ve talked to have said, “We would love to do this with some support.”

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One reason it’s taken so long to get even this close to a federal paid leave program isn’t to do with business interests. It’s a stigma. Paid leave has a PR problem.

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A line cook was talking about how she was part of the paid leave push in Massachusetts years ago but, in her own job, she does not have paid leave and does not feel like she can bring it up to her employer. She was saying, I worked very hard to make sure people have access to paid and that it got passed. But I still haven’t internalized guilt about using it myself. The staff is so strapped that it gives the idea that if she leaves, she’s screwing over somebody else in the job or hurting her career or her co-workers. There’s sort of this psychological divide there: We need it, but should I even be asking for it? I think it goes back to this idea that we as a nation haven’t really supported it in the past and haven’t found it to be valuable. So I think making that shift is probably the harder part with paid leave.

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When it comes to paid leave, it appears that a working taking it has a direct cost to the people around them. But in reality, not taking paid leave has a bigger long-term cost to a lot more people. Can you talk a little bit about like what it is costing us to not have paid leave?

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It’s a huge retention issue. I’ve spoken to small businesses that have independently added paid leave as a benefit. They say, we can retain people so much more if we give them that time to go pick up their kid from school that day off when they’re feeling sick. So there’s the retention piece—the cost of turnover, the cost of training—and then there is the public health piece. We saw that very starkly during the pandemic. There was one study done out of Cornell, which found that when you control for every other factor, states and localities that had paid leave laws saw fewer COVID cases, because these low-wage workers who were most likely to continue working in these customer-facing jobs, they were returning to work even though they had symptoms, because they could not afford to take unpaid time off if their hours were already reduced. You’re put in this impossible position. A lot of them would say to me, I’m just thankful to have a job and to have many hours left. I can’t afford to lose any more. With paid leave, if they weren’t sure what their symptoms were, or whether they were sick, they could go back to work and not spread the virus.

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it seems like there’s an empathy piece in the debate also. I’ve seen it pointed out that in the U.S. it’s illegal for breeders to separate puppies from mother dogs before they’re 8 weeks old, but we have no rules in place mandating that human mothers get any time to spend with their newborns at all. Why do you think we have so little empathy for human families?

That’s a big question. I think that’s at the heart of so many things, like, why don’t we have more empathy as a country? What don’t we understand about the situations people are in? I think it’s part of this culture of “go, go, go,” that we so value people who say, “I was able to get back to work for weeks after having my having my child.” But we are working dismantle these myths surrounding work culture, about being “on” all the time and being able to do it all. The supermom idea, right? That is just not sustainable for anyone. So we set these expectations that are not realistic, and I think paid leave is part of that bigger idea that people should just be able to do it all and have it all, without support. In the past year and a half, we’ve seen what it looks like, in a really stark, obvious way, what it looks like when we don’t give that support.

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How do we reframe the way we look at caretakers? Instead of being like, “Congratulations, you’re a superhero,” how do we shift that to be like, “Wow, you are working your ass off and you’re working really hard, but you shouldn’t have to do all this work”?

So much of caretakers’ work is so undervalued, whether it’s in a professional setting or in the home. That is the reframing that I think has started to happen, where we all of this care work that is taking place—whether it’s child care or long-term care or home health care—all of that away way this year and we fell apart as a country. All of all those areas need to be valued a little bit more because they are really essential to keeping the wheels turning as a society. And then there’s all this other care that is taking place in the home. All of those moms who are staying up till midnight, those parents who are caring for a parent or a sibling or somebody else—all of that care does not get acknowledged. There’s no data on it. And because we don’t measure it, we don’t quantify it, we don’t pay attention to it, we don’t recognize it as labor. We don’t recognize it as work that’s important and valuable. I think that’s part of our fundamental problem: what we focus on and what we don’t focus on. I think care in general is infrastructure, which we’ve heard talked about a lot this—that’s a really crucial reframing that I think is going to take time. There’s a lot of pushback on that concept, a lot of people who just don’t want to see care described in that way. That’s the big question for us moving forward: Can this reframing stick, or is it really just fueled from the pandemic and then it dies?

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As somebody who watches this issue, do you think that a federal paid family leave program is actually going to happen this time?

I think it is. I say that with caution. The House is moving forward on writing this reconciliation package. We know there’s Republican support for the infrastructure package. There are these two things that are moving in tandem with each other I always want to be cautious, but I think there’s definitely a possibility. We saw things passed this year that we’ve never seen, like the child tax credit. A similar situation is happening here with paid leave, where we have some Republican support, we have some business support, we have this moment where there is an opportunity to seize on it. I think it could. If it doesn’t, I don’t want my words to come back and eat me. But I think it could.

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