Over the last year, the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated families, businesses, and our economy. In the process, it has undone three decades of progress toward gender equity in the workplace. The jobs numbers from December are a case in point. While the economy suffered a net loss of 140,000 jobs, men gained 16,000 jobs. That means every net job lost belonged to a woman. The numbers also show that women of color bore the brunt of those losses. More than 154,000 Black women left the labor force, the largest drop in their employment during the pandemic.
These losses could have been avoided. Forcing American workers, especially women, to choose between their family and paychecks is not new. These numbers tell the story of a failure of policy that goes far beyond COVID. We know that when kids need to stay home, either because they are sick or participating in distance learning, that it is almost always women who stay home with them. If those women can’t work from home or take paid time off, the consequences are dire. We are seeing those consequences play out in real time, especially for women of color, who are not only more likely to hold essential jobs that require in-person work, but are also less likely to have access to paid leave. They are left with an impossible choice between caring for their children and earning a living.
COVID highlighted the need for paid leave, but that need won’t end when the pandemic does. Creating a permanent, universal paid leave program must be part of our long term plans for economic recovery. That is what the FAMILY Act would do. It’s modeled after successful state programs and will make sure that we provide paid leave for every event and every worker — every time it’s needed. It would allow workers at companies of all sizes to take 12 weeks of paid leave to recover from childbirth, care for a new baby, manage a serious health condition or care for an ailing loved one. Workers would receive up to 66% of their monthly wages during their leave, giving them, and our economy, a much needed boost.
When women lose their jobs, the impact is immediate and long-lasting. Not only do their families have to try to make ends meet in the short term, but those women’s careers and earning potential suffer setbacks they often never overcome. This especially hurts low-income women, who are often taken off the career ladder when they welcome new children or get sick or have to care for an ill parent. They never have a chance to ascend in seniority or earn higher pay.
The United States is the only industrialized nation in the world that doesn’t have a national policy to provide paid family medical leave to all workers. Currently, more than eight in ten working people lack access to comprehensive paid leave. That must change. A report from the Center for American Progress found that if working mothers are forced to leave the labor force or work fewer hours due to their caretaking responsibilities, it could cost up to $64.5 billion in lost wages and economic activity. That’s money that we could be putting back into the pockets of working families and the economy.
You don’t have to look far to see how real paid leave helps families. States like New York, Connecticut, California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts have paid leave laws that provide a financial safety net during medical events and emergencies. Employers and employees in those states, and others using this model, have already benefitted.
This pandemic will end — and it will end faster if people can afford to stay home when they or their children are sick — but there will always be the need for paid sick and family leave. The only way we can truly build back a better economy is by recognizing that simple fact and passing the FAMILY Act. No one should be forced to choose between their health and their paycheck — not during a pandemic, not ever.