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Paid Leave|April 06, 2020

Paid Leave is Critical for Americans During and After the COVID-19 Response

Trisha Comsti


Public health measures have taken priority as the whole country tries to slow the spread of COVID-19. Here in Washington state, it has meant strict social distancing orders and that people must stay home from work to isolate themselves if they are infected—or think they might be infected. People also have to stay home from work if they are caring for someone who is ill, caring for children whose school or daycare is closed, or caring for a disabled family member who cannot receive their usual care because of the quarantine measures.

It’s clear there are myriad reasons why any one of us would need to stay home from work in these uncertain times. These reasons are why paid family and medical leave (or simply, paid leave), and its critical role in our society, has been highlighted in recent weeks.

There is currently no federal law in the U.S. requiring employers to offer paid leave benefits to their employees. In 2018, only 16% of private sector employees had access to paid leave. The same year, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development ranked the U.S. last among 41 countries on the issue, finding it to be the only country that does not offer paid leave to new parents. Now, paid leave policies have been fast tracked through Congress to help families who find themselves in tenuous health and financial circumstances.

Paid leave is important part of the COVID-19 response, but the new policies could go further.

The federal government is spending trillions of dollars to support the country during the pandemic, including a new paid leave policy that will be available to millions of Americans. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act was signed into law on March 18, with its provisions going into effect no later than 15 days after that—or this past Thursday, April 2. Workers covered under the law are eligible for up to two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined, caring for someone who is ill or quarantined, or caring for a child whose school or day care closed. Extended paid leave beyond this is possible under the new law, though it wouldn’t cover 100% of wages.

It is certainly a sign of progress that any amount of paid leave is now available under federal law for those that need it. However, what is being offered now is not enough.

Two weeks of paid leave will fall short in covering the needs of families during our prolonged pandemic response. The president announced that nationwide social distancing guidelines will remain in effect until at least the end of April. In the Seattle area, K-12 schools have already been closed for more than two weeks and won’t re-open until at least May 4, if not later. Some of us, myself included, are juggling working from home with caring for a young child. It has been challenging. But I’m still more fortunate than others—those who work in hospitals, in retail, or in essential services like city sanitation, for example—who cannot work and care for their kids.

Millions of Americans are still not covered by the new paid leave policy due to their individual job circumstances, like having independent contractor status or working for a small business. For these people, and many in similar situations, the new paid leave policy is a good start, but more can be done.

Paid leave is not just a maternal health or public health issue, either.

It is part of a strong and functioning society and a critical component of a wider safety net that protects workers and families. In times of stress and hardship, paid leave helps families pay their rent. It helps mothers and fathers be there for their children. It helps children support their elderly parents. It allows employees to heal themselves when they need the time to do so. Additionally, preliminary research conducted by Panorama last year shows that paid leave can be a benefit to employers because they may see returns on investment through not just their employees’ improved well-being, but in the form of increases to their own bottom lines.

Paid leave is a priority, and should remain one even after the pandemic is over.

If the United States needed a wake-up call to realize the importance of paid leave to protect its citizens in times of emergency, it has certainly received one. We are living in extraordinary times, yet after the COVID-19 emergency subsides, Americans will continue to live through life-changing and extraordinary moments on a regular basis: Babies will continue to be born. Elderly parents will still require care. Loved ones will pass away. Employees will need to recover from serious health issues.

Currently, government and employers in the U.S. are not structured in a way that adequately protects the most vulnerable—but they could be. With the passage of the Families First Coronavirus Act, we see that faced with enormous loss of livelihood and public pressure, the U.S. can ensure American workers have the time they need to care for their families. My hope is that after the current emergency subsides, the federal government permanently establishes the importance and necessity of paid leave for all Americans.

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