This is one in a series of articles about the pandemic and America’s First Female Recession. See more here. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policy positions of NCRC.
It’s impossible to listen to stories of people like Colorado mother, former hospice worker, current waitress and nursing student-turned-paid leave activist, April Kimbrough, and believe that care policies like paid family and medical leave are anything other than foundational.
Kimbrough recently spoke at a convening hosted by New America’s Better Life Lab and A Better Balance and explained that, last year, her 23-year old son, Da’Corey, a Georgia resident, was diagnosed with a rare kidney cancer and COVID-19. When Kimbrough went to Georgia to care for him, she worked remotely, never missing a shift. But, soon, she encountered an ultimatum from her employer: Return to Colorado to work, or lose your job. Kimbrough returned, but “within a couple of weeks, I ultimately lost my job. By losing my job, I lost my apartment. By losing my apartment, I was forced into my car for one month.”
Let that sink in: Kimbrough’s inability to access paid family and medical leave meant she lost her home. Kimbrough explained that she found work as a waitress, which allowed her more flexibility to care for her son in Georgia and finish nursing school in Colorado, but that flexibility came at a price: the loss of stable income, benefits and insurance.
If Kimbrough had paid family and medical leave, she could have cared for her son without losing her job or jeopardizing her livelihood, housing, benefits and insurance. She would have had the foundation she needed to provide care to her son. Her hospice employer would not have lost a trained care worker in the middle of a pandemic. The economy wouldn’t have lost the value of her labor as a result of her losing her job.
Kimbrough turned to activism. Now, thanks to her and other activists, small business owners and 57% of Colorado’s voters including those in “red” counties who voted “yes” on Proposition 118 last November, Colorado workers will soon have near-universal access to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave. Beginning in 2024, Colorado will join eight other states and the District of Columbia in creating and administering paid leave benefits for workers who need to care for a seriously ill loved one, themselves or a new child. Still, workers in the other 40 states are left behind.
There are millions of April Kimbroughs in the United States today. Black women like April are especially hard hit by a double-bind: working in jobs that pay low wages and lack paid leave benefits while also shouldering a disproportionate share of caregiving needs.
But access to paid family leave among workers of all genders, races, ethnicities, regions and ideologies is rare. Just 20% of workers in the private sector had access to paid family leave through their jobs in March 2020 just as the pandemic hit, and for workers in low-wage occupations, access was much lower at 5%. Access to personal medical leave through an employer’s temporary disability insurance policy reached only two-in-five workers overall and fewer than one-in-five low-wage workers. The unpaid, job-protected leave provided through the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) reaches fewer than six-in-ten workers and its tenure and hours-worked requirements mean people of color are disproportionately excluded.
Like Kimbrough, without paid leave or the job protection provided by the FMLA, workers lose jobs, lose homes and can’t afford to cover basic expenses. According to the Economic Policy Institute, just 4.5 days away from work without pay for a lower-wage worker jeopardizes their ability to buy food for their family for a full month; 13.1 days away from work without pay jeopardizes their ability to pay for housing and utilities.
Job loss is even more devastating, especially in the midst of a pandemic. Unemployment rates have remained high, especially for Black and Latinx workers and especially for women. It is notable that, after the Great Recession, it took Black women until 2018 to recover, according to U.S. Department of Labor Chief Economist Janelle Jones, and now all gains have been lost. The racial and gender wealth gaps, particularly for Black women relative to White men, means low or no savings to fall back on in times of economic strain and hardship and difficulty ensuring economic security for the future.
As the United States builds back from COVID-19, policymakers must invest in policies the country’s workers needed long ago to help support parents, family caregivers and all working people – especially women, women of color, and people who work in lower-wage jobs that do not offer benefits.
Fortunately, the Biden-Harris administration – which has prioritized racial justice, gender justice and health equity – has included a national paid family and medical leave program in its American Families Plan. The chairman of the powerful House of Representatives Committee on Ways and Means, Rep. Richard Neal, has also released his own paid family and medical leave draft legislation following a powerful hearing called, In Their Own Words: Paid Leave, Child Care and an Economy that Failed Women. The two plans offer comprehensive protections to workers and families across the country and build on the FAMILY Act, which has been introduced and championed in Congress by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Representative Rosa DeLauro and more than two hundred of their congressional colleagues for years.
As Congress addresses the policies the country needs to create an inclusive and just economy, paid leave must be part of the care infrastructure the country builds. A federal paid leave program should be guided by lessons about benefits, coverage and funding from states, ensuring access for all working people no matter where they live or work, their serious family or personal medical or care needs or the job they hold. Paid leave sits at the heart of all that people hold dear, because – like April Kimbrough – no one should be forced to choose between a home, a job, insurance and pay and answering the emergency call of a loved one in need.
Vicki Shabo is the Senior Fellow for Paid Leave Policy and Strategy, Better Life Lab at New America.