A divisive political landscape was a defining attribute of 2020, and will continue to be one in 2021. However, one universally agreed-upon issue is the endlessly exhausting toll the pandemic has on caregivers. Working parents are facing brutal economic, healthcare, and childcare trade-offs. Nearly a year into the COVID-19 crisis, most people have exhausted their short-term leave options, and large numbers are simply leaving the workforce. In September 2020 at the start of the school year, 865,000 women dropped out of the labor force—or 4x the rate of men. COVID-19 has laid bare the gaps in our caregiving infrastructure.
But despite a frayed political landscape, strong majorities of Democratic, Republican, and Independent voters increasingly support paid family leave for new parents and those affected by personal medical issues and their caregivers.
Prior to this childcare and health emergency, working families have called for the government to pass paid leave. Washington has ignored the 80% of Americans who want and acutely need a national paid leave program. And proposals have been marching their way through the halls of Congress for years now, no one able to agree on how a paid leave law should look. Still, there is reason to hope. Caregiving was front and center in 2020 campaigns like never before.
In Senate races in Arizona, Iowa, and North Carolina, candidates embraced their identities as caregivers during their campaigns. And the President-elect did not shy away from sharing his experience as a young widowed parent, and later a caregiver for his sick son, running on a platform of universal sick days, 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, and real financial security for the caregiver workforce. In Colorado, voters decisively approved a ballot initiative to create a statewide paid leave program, where workers will receive 12 weeks of paid leave for childbirth, adoption, and certain medical emergencies. Colorado now joins eight other states and D.C. in adopting a statewide family leave policy.
But a state-based patchwork isn’t a plan. Each state’s rules vary in inclusivity. Some parts of the workforce, such as those working in executive roles at large companies benefit from corporate leave policies, whereas low wage working people and communities of color statistically find themselves working in sectors such as healthcare, education, and retail—the jobs we have learned to call “essential”—do not. Your zip code or your job type shouldn’t determine whether you can provide appropriate care for a loved one recovering from COVID or to a newborn child.
What does it look like to be the only developed country without a national paid family leave policy? We put our economy at risk, perpetuate systemic inequality, and compound the racial wealth gap. It’s a new mother in Arizona returning to waitressing just three weeks after her C-section to earn gas money to visit her daughter in the ICU. It looks like frontline domestic workers contracting COVID-19 in the workplace and bringing it home to their families. It looks like women rising through the corporate, athletic and academic ranks putting their careers on hold, perhaps permanently.
We have seen firsthand how much is lost when women are penalized for taking time off with a child—in Allyson’s case, having her pay lowered after having a child, and pressured to rush back to work too soon after an emergency C-section.
Businesses increasingly recognize the importance of paid leave policies to attract and retain talent, with more and more executives and agencies supportive of national leave policy. Paid leave is critical for businesses to ensure that their workforce can stay home if sick and not risk COVID-19 infections in the workplace. Moreover, paid leave boosts productivity and increases retention; women with paid leave are 93% more likely to be working one year after birth than those with no leave. Seventy-seven percent of workers say paid family leave would sway their choice of employer. Paid leave is critical for businesses to ensure that their workforce can stay home if sick and not risk COVID-19 infections in the workplace.
We are living during a historic moment. Our President-elect Joe Biden, and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, along with many of the newly-elected U.S. Senators have made paid leave a central part of their campaign promises. This is their chance to show they are listening to working families. All Americans, whether Republican and Democrat, have demonstrated they agree we need a national paid leave policy. If we agree on this, our government should be able to as well.
Elana Berkowitz, a founding partner of Springbank Collective, which invests in the New Care Economy and the Future of Inclusive Work.
Allyson Felix is an Olympian, a decorated track and field athlete, and a maternal health and family leave advocate.