Who’s paying for the lack of paid leave?

October 7, 2021 11:53 am
Mother holding baby and using laptop

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When my younger son was 5, he was hit by a car and had to stay overnight in the hospital. He was hurting from stitches in the back of his head, a collar on his neck, bruises on his body. Above all, he was terrified. On the way to his room, he saw kids alone in their beds. He wouldn’t let me out of his sight.

Experiences like these are what Congress should keep in mind as they debate cuts in funding for the Build Back Better Act. How expensive is the current lack of paid leave, and who bears the cost?

We have plenty of hard numbers. The lack of care infrastructure has driven millions of people, mostly women, out of the labor force. Only one in five workers has paid family leave through an employer; only two in five has employer-provided medical leave. The lost wages add up to $22.5 billion a year.

The impact of lost wages ripples through our communities. As Freddy Castiblanco, a jazz club owner in Elmhurst, New York, put it, “Those workers [without time to care] are my customers, particularly the low-income Latinos. When we protect the wages and job stability of workers, we also protect our consumers’ ability to buy.”

Castiblanco isn’t alone. The majority of small business owners support paid leave. They want it for their staff but can’t afford to provide it on their own — and also want it for their community.

In addition to lost sales and tax revenue, lost wages lead to lower future earnings, fewer opportunities for advancement, and less ability to save and to build wealth. Not surprisingly, the burden falls disproportionately on people of color and on women, exacerbating the racial and gender wealth gap.

But we can’t leave out the physical, emotional and financial price for families when they have to choose between caregiving and employment. Many of those costs are incalculable.

Meet Bethany Fauteux, who had to return to work in child care just three weeks after giving birth via C-section. Aside from the harm to her health and to her child’s health, how can you measure  the emotional cost of caring for other parents’ babies when you’re not allowed to be with your own?

Kris Garcia, like many people, has experienced years of guilt for not being there when his father drew his last breath — and that happened a decade before the pandemic. Kris’ boss had made it clear: come back to your job or you won’t have one. Ask Magy Viveros which was worse: recovering from a stroke at the age of 16, or watching her farmworker mother, whose care was vital to Magy’s recovery, panic over how they’d keep a roof over their heads.

More than nine in ten low-paid workers lack any paid leave whatsoever. But the problem isn’t limited to this group. Middle-class employees may not live paycheck to paycheck, but most have little cushion for an unexpected accident or illness — as the pandemic made abundantly clear.

It’s time to reframe the conversation and talk about the intended consequences of paid leave. Who doesn’t want lower infant and maternal mortality rates? Who’s against increasing women’s attachment to the workforce? Who can deny paid leave for all would have helped curb the pandemic?

Most of us understand the value of higher rates of breastfeeding and greater engagement by fathers — both of which happen with access to paid leave. Paid leave also leads to increased independence for seniors, something that should be attainable for all of our parents, and some day, for each of us.

Not surprisingly, voters across the political spectrum support a meaningful paid leave program. This is a program that touches all of us.

It’s time for Congress to listen to and invest in their constituents. We simply can’t afford to keep paying for the status quo.

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Ellen Bravo
Ellen Bravo

Ellen Bravo is a founder and now strategic advisor to Family Values @ Work, a network of state coalitions that fights for paid leave and child care policies.