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There's still no paid leave for US workers—but advocates aren't giving up


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Despite being a cornerstone of the pitch for President Joe Biden's American Families Plan, it appears the United States will remain one of a handful of countries in the world, and the only wealthy country, that does not offer some form of paid medical and parental leave to its citizens.

After weeks of negotiations, Biden presented a new framework for his Build Back Better (BBB) agenda last week that stripped out paid leave, to the dismay of advocates who had been pushing for its inclusion.

But advocates aren't done fighting. They say it's too important of a policy to give up on, especially after the Covid-19 pandemic solidified just how necessary a permanent, comprehensive paid leave program is.

"Covid has made it absolutely clear that caregiving needs are not always anticipated and that everyone at some point in their lives will need to give or receive care. It's a universal benefit," says Hannah Matthews, deputy executive director for policy at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), a national nonprofit that advocates for policies aimed at improving the lives of low-income individuals.

The benefits of paid leave have been well established by decades of research. Paid parental leave benefits those who give birth and their babies, both healthwise and financially. Children and families benefit when the parent who didn't give birth and adoptive parents are given paid leave, as well.

It's good for the economy, too, research has found. Workers with access to paid leave are much more likely to return to their jobs, rather than look for a new position or drop out of the workforce altogether. Employers then spend less replacing workers and the overall labor force grows.

It would help workers — particularly low-income women and women of color — remain in the workforce now as the U.S. is still on the road to recovery from the economic devastation the coronavirus inflicted since March 2020, Matthews says. They wouldn't need to choose between caring for a sick loved one or their job.

"If we want an inclusive economic recovery that includes women, includes lowest-wage workers, paid leave must be a part of it," she says.

Matthews says given the benefits and the popularity of the policy — poll after poll finds it's widely popular among all demographic groups — there's no real reason paid leave should be excluded from BBB.

"I think this is a really missed opportunity for Congress to do what's right," she says.

The need for paid leave

Democrats started BBB negotiations with 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave on the table. It was then whittled down to four weeks, and eventually taken out completely due to the objections of one Democratic senator, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, over the total cost of the legislation. Democrats need all 50 senators on board to pass their budget bill.

On Wednesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Ca., said House Democrats would add a paid leave measure back into the legislation.

Of course, many companies offer paid leave to employees, and some state and local governments mandate it for certain businesses. On the federal level, there is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which provides unpaid leave for serious medical conditions for all employees of all public agencies, and employees who have worked at least one year at private companies with at least 50 employees. Federal workers receive 12 weeks of paid leave.

But only around 16% of private sector workers qualify for paid family leave, and many do not qualify for any leave at all, especially hourly workers and those in lower-wage industries.

People of color are more likely to not have access to leave than white workers: Around 19% of Latinas lack access to the unpaid leave provided by the FMLA, compared with 8.4% of white men, a recent study from the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health's WORLD Policy Analysis Center found, because of the differences in their jobs.

Biden's framework does have provisions to help families as well as child- and elder-care workers, who are predominantly women of color. But without the addition of paid leave, "if those same workers need to care for themselves or a family member, they will either forgo care or need to quit their job," says Lelaine Bigelow, vice president for social impact and congressional relations at the National Partnership for Women & Families.

Though at least 12 weeks would be ideal, CLASP's Matthews says that even four weeks would be better than nothing, and that there is still time to get paid leave put back into the BBB negotiations.

"It would create a structure to build on in the future," she says. "It would have a significant impact for millions of workers."

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