Is 2021 the Year for Paid Family and Medical Leave? You Can Help Make it So!

January 22, 2021

Ian Schneider on Unsplash

With the peaceful inauguration of a new president and vice president and the dismantling of the secured perimeter here in the nation’s capital, it finally feels right to say “happy 2021” and express hope for the new year. For those interested in securing a national comprehensive paid family and medical leave policy that applies to all working people in the United States, this open letter is meant as a look-ahead for paid leave in 2021 and as a guide for those looking to get more involved. If there were ever a time to double down, this is it.

I’m excited to face 2021 — the new administration, the new Congress — with resolve to win federal paid family and medical leave. All of the factors I outlined last January, which pointed toward momentum for comprehensive paid family and medical leave as we headed into 2020, still hold — most especially a growing recognition of the problems people experience without paid leave and the acute disparities in access that exist, exciting federal and state legislative action, and substantial media and private-sector attention.

A year later, we’re knee deep in a once-in-a-century public health crisis. The pandemic has shown that paid time away from work to prevent and recover from illness and to provide and receive care is paramount. As a result of the pandemic, economic, racial and gender injustices have multiplied and deepened. And as a result of massive government misdeeds in responding to the pandemic, compounding other massive failures, malfeasances and disinvestment decisions of the past four years and before, people’s trust in government to make helpful public policy and establish public programs relevant to their lives is in graver need of restoration than ever before.

I see a well-designed paid family and medical leave program as able to address all three of these problems: health challenges, multiple inequities and public trust in government.

2020 confirmed yet again that paid leave works, is popular and should be available nationwide. New evidence from states with longstanding policies, like California and Rhode Island, added to a huge body of existing evidence showing the value of state paid leave programs. The passage of Colorado’s new state paid family and medical leave program with bipartisan voter support in November 2020, new paid sick days laws in Colorado and New York state, and the implementation of new policies in Washington, the District of Columbia and Massachusetts show progress is possible, even amidst — and maybe, especially because of — a pandemic. And health evidence from the time-bound Families First Coronavirus Response Act at the federal level demonstrates national-scale value of guaranteed paid sick leave.

Political, economic and demographic conditions confirm this is the moment to go all in. The Biden-Harris administration has committed to emergency paid sick and family and medical leave in its American Rescue Plan, to a permanent 12-week paid family and medical leave policy and to a national paid sick days law. President Biden has called the “care economy” a key pillar of economic recovery and appointed experienced gender equity experts to lead its new Gender Policy Council. Congress is in narrow Democratic control. Business groups that have traditionally opposed national paid leave policies have started to change their tune. Paid leave advocacy is stronger than ever. And the COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharp relief the challenges people face when paid leave is unavailable, including the unconscionable and preventable spread of illness, economic hardship and an unprecedented drop in women’s workforce participation.

COVID-19 has helped to overcome some overarching impediments that have hindered paid leave’s rise to the top of policymakers’ agendas in the past. Specifically:

  • COVID-19 shows that paid leave is a “right sized” policy rather than one that is too big or too small. In the past, paid leave fell into a kind of limbo — viewed simultaneously as a big policy and a small one, depending on one’s frame of reference. It is true that permanent paid leave would be a transformational new area of support for workers and create new rules for businesses — and it’s common for opponents to raise concerns about a big new government program. On the other hand, relative to other federal issues, it sometimes seems limited, in that it touches people only at certain points in their lives (when new children are born, or when illness strikes) whereas other policies like health care are considered much more systemic. In reality, the COVID-19 crisis shows the centrality of this policy and, I would argue, paid leave is exactly the type of government intervention that would be most effective at meeting people’s needs and illustrating how government programs can address people’s kitchen-table issues.
  • Paid leave for all people and all serious family health and caregiving reasons — dealt with in a systemic way — is essential. In the past, paid leave was too often considered a sideline “women’s” issue and a matter of individual concern — a problem that was exacerbated when politicians and the media focused on only maternity leave for moms and babies. In reality, the country’s lack of paid leave has stymied gender, race and economic equity, hindered business competitiveness, and neglected changing demographics that necessitate the greater availability of family caregivers. For all these reasons, implementing national paid leave was an essential policy needed to address systemic challenges before the pandemic. The need for a universal, comprehensive policy is even more evident now, with illness, long-term health issues and the need for care common to people and communities of all kinds in very visible ways.
  • Paid leave is a key, common-sense economic priority that is a non-partisan, common sense issue for people and voters. In times past, paid leave was too often wrongly considered as a too-progressive, second-tier issue by policymakers. As a result, it was deprioritized by some moderate Democrats, considered untouchable by many Republicans, and treated as marginal to mainstream domestic economic policy discussions. In reality, paid leave is — and has always been — overwhelmingly bipartisan national, battleground and state-specific polls and was most recently proven to be a bipartisan issue among Colorado voters in 2020, as well. It has passed state legislatures with bipartisan support. It’s also popular among small business owners, who are often inaccurately assumed to be opponents and used as an excuse for politicians’ inaction. And its adoption is central to economic recovery, especially for women and lower-wage workers.

So what now? How do we seize momentum and solidify newly-recognized truths? How do we make the most of the opportunities presented by the current political landscape and the urgent need felt by 100 million or so workers who lacked paid leave prior to the pandemic and still don’t have it — but may need it more than ever — now? How do we overcome inevitable fiscal concerns that wrongly focus on the cost of a new national paid leave program rather than the costs of the untenable status quo and the fiscal benefits derived from a comprehensive program?

Here are my thoughts on five elements of the path forward for 2021:

1. Amplify, celebrate and push forward the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to paid leave and the care economy. Advocates, business leaders, philanthropists, state policymakers and working people across the country can help amplify, encourage and support the new administration’s commitment — pushing when needed to help keep a laser focus on care as a key component of the gender, race and economic equity lens the administration has promised to bring to its work.

The appointment of a point person on care, as Melinda Gates and others have called for, would be an excellent way to ensure that work across offices within the White House, federal agencies, between federal and state governments, and between government(s) and the private sector is holistic, coordinated where possible, always complementary and impactful. This would include, but go beyond, paid leave to encompass the totality of care policies and the compensation and dignity of care workers.

We also should encourage the administration to use the bully pulpit, its convening power and its leverage with the public, private and nonprofit sectors to move the needle on policy, practice and partnerships. If Congress passes new policies, the administration will need to play a leading role in implementation, outreach to affected workers, families and employers, and enforcement — as well as a key role in undertaking and encouraging others to undertake the culture changes needed to allow people to make full use of new benefits in equitable ways.

2. Encourage Congress to take up President Biden’s call to prioritize paid leave as part of COVID-19 rescue and relief — and to also prioritize implementing a permanent national paid leave plan as an important part of economic recovery and infrastructure. 2020 was a watershed for federal paid leave legislation. Prior to the pandemic, the House Ways & Means Committee held a legislative hearing and was preparing to mark up the FAMILY Act (H.R. 1185, in the 116th Congress), for permanent paid leave; the legislation’s co-sponsor list grew considerably in 2020, especially after the pandemic. Paid parental leave for most federal workers, which passed in 2019, went into effect in October 2020. And Congress passed temporary emergency paid sick and family leave, which covered up to 87 million workers, and was in effect from April through December.

However, we also saw the limits of congressional action, and better understand the work that remains to overcome the impediments above and other barriers to action. Most egregiously, in the December COVID relief package, Congress failed to extend emergency paid leave benefits referenced above, allowing a sunset of workers’ access to 10 work days of paid sick time to quarantine, self-isolate, deal with symptoms of COVID, receive a diagnosis or provide care to a loved one, and ending parents’ 12 weeks of access to paid leave to care for a child whose school or child care was closed. In addition, the emergency paid leave benefits that did exist from April through December were gravely inadequate, excluding tens of millions of workers, creating exemptions that businesses could use to exclude more, and failing to address longer-term COVID-related health and care needs that Republicans insisted be stripped from the legislation at the last minute.

We must marshal every tool to help Congress do better. If there were ever a time to guarantee paid leave, this is it. Emergency relief is urgent. And if we’re to ensure that the country builds back better, permanent paid leave must be central. To ensure people see and appreciate paid leave benefits delivered during President Biden’s term and to guard against adverse results in the 2022 midterms that could stymie progress or undercut implementation, Congress must pass permanent paid leave as early as possible in 2021, whether through stand-alone legislation or as part of a Build Back Better package.

Here’s how to help, either on your own or in coordination with organizations dedicated to securing the passage of paid leave:

→ Ask Democratic leadership and Democrats on key committees to prioritize this issue. Affected people and families, non-profit organizations representing communities with urgent needs, health providers, faith leaders, labor interests, and advocates of every type of human need, as well as businesses that support paid family and medical leave, are all essential messengers and must double down on contacts in outreach and volume.

→ Reinforce to moderates in both parties that paid leave isn’t polarizing, and isn’t “progressive” for real people — it’s a matter of need and common sense. This is as true for rural communities as it is for urban and suburban ones — maybe even more so, as access to both health care and child care is more difficult in less populated areas.

→ Engage new constituencies to help Republicans understand the connection between paid leave, economics and core values. Several Republican lawmakers have introduced proposals for new-parent income support over the last few years; their plans would all require parents to borrow against their own future financial security and would not reach in any way the workers who need paid leave for their own serious health issue or to care for a loved one. Still, the interest these policymakers have shown can be a starting place for trusted messengers to make the case that well-constructed, comprehensive paid family and medical leave serves both business interests and key voting blocs that Republicans need to win — and it promotes stronger family bonds, financial independence and efficient use of other public resources as well.

→ If you are a business executive, business owner or have expertise in economics and you support public policy to guarantee paid family and medical leave, now is the time to weigh in! Your perspective carries great influence in the current environment. Contact lawmakers to share your perspective and experiences; enlist like-minded colleagues and organizations to do the same. Additionally, express curiosity and seek to understand the evolving outlook of organized business lobbying and trade organizations — and help to move their positions toward support for comprehensive and meaningful national paid leave. Many businesses and business groups that have traditionally opposed government paid leave regulation wrote to the Department of Labor this past summer that they favor some sort of national standard; some of these were veiled asks for limits on government power while others were more substantive suggestions about affirmative baseline federal standards. If there were a common path forward on a meaningful federal program without eroding hard-win state-based rights and protections, that would be the quickest way to enactment and help smooth implementation of a new program.

3. Continue to collect and amplify evidence and narratives around state paid leave successes — and help to win new state policies. There are now six states plus the District of Columbia with functioning paid family and medical leave programs — and three more will be up and running between 2022 and 2024. State programs have hastened pressure for federal policy.

Continued state organizing is key. It’s critical to invest deeply in evidence and storytelling about what works, which policy and implementation elements need improvement, and how the availability of paid leave has shaped the lives and fortunes of people of all genders, children, older or disabled loved ones who needed and received care, and businesses. The totality of state work will help speed the passage of a well-designed, effective federal program and to guide implementation at the federal level — and will also be critically important once a federal program passes to help socialize and normalize people using it.

4. Create greater political accountability so that politicians have to pay more attention to paid leave, care and workplace-related gender equity issues generally. This requires building new political organizing infrastructures to leverage grassroots voter power and local leaders’ influence; new relationships with donors to political candidates and organizations; and new bridges to organizations that already do more expressly political work. Marshalling the connections between money and politics may be controversial, but — in the current system where money and politics are linked, and until there’s meaningful campaign finance and democracy reform — it’s essential.

5. Build broader popular culture narratives around paid leave, care and the health of families and the economy. For those who work with storytellers in television, film and other forms of popular culture, there are many, many stories to be told from the pandemic and the before-times and after-times about the need for paid leave. Storylines involving main characters, episodic characters and more need to become more prominent. And, of course, the pages of influential political, policy, economic, business and culture publications must continue to be filled with op-eds, analyses, first-person narratives and more.

***

Sometimes it is hard to see the path to progress and harder to stay true to that path, especially when so many urgent challenges demand our attention and there are so many harms to correct and wrongs to right. But paid family and medical leave is achievable and I believe more than ever that it sits at the heart of the progress we must make to achieve gender, racial, economic and health equity, and to begin to rebuild trust in public systems and people’s ability to see government investments as relevant to their lives. Let’s get to work!

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Tenacious optimist fighting for an equitable and family friendly America. Senior Fellow at New America. Views are my own. Twitter: @vshabo

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Vicki Shabo

Vicki Shabo

Tenacious optimist fighting for an equitable and family friendly America. Senior Fellow at New America. Views are my own. Twitter: @vshabo

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