We applaud the Senate’s bipartisan framework for a COVID-19 relief package. It represents a needed return to the collaborative congressional response that marked the beginning of the pandemic, and we hope it sets the tone for a more productive 2021 and beyond.
We understand that the nature of a moderate package means that not everyone gets what they want. That said, there’s an obvious bipartisan component missing from the deal: paid leave.
In a season of rampant COVID-19 infections, remote school, and rolling child care closures, providing workers with paid time off to prevent contagion and care for loved ones is common sense, if not life-saving.
Paid leave has been supported by leaders across the political spectrum, from President Trump to Speaker Pelosi. It was included in the first big COVID package this spring, called the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). Within FFCRA’s paid leave program, businesses were reimbursed for providing paid sick and family leave to their employees to reduce costs facing businesses amidst financial pressures and keep workers facing caregiving dilemmas employed. Those provisions are now set to expire at year’s end and should be extended.
The reasons for supporting a federal paid leave program during a public health crisis have not changed. If anything, they have grown stronger given the rise in cases, unequal labor market fallout, and new research on the role of paid leave during the pandemic:
Paid leave would help people to return to work. According to a Bipartisan Policy Center – Morning Consult poll that we led together: “Nearly two out of three workers (63%) say they would be somewhat (29%) or very (34%) likely to return to work sooner if they knew they had access to paid family leave. Paid family leave would be notably beneficial to minority workers: 73% of Black and 67% of Hispanic workers on unemployment insurance say they would be more likely to return to work if they had access to paid family leave.”
There remains a significant gap in paid leave coverage, especially among vulnerable workers. According to new polling from American Enterprise Institute: “One-fifth of working-age adults reported an unmet need for leave [during the pandemic], with greater prevalence among those with children in the household and those with a household income below $50,000 per year.” The author, Angela Rachidi, concludes: “These results highlight a need for Congress to support paid time off for workers and pass new funding to shore up the childcare market as a way to support labor force participation.”
Paid sick leave helps to flatten the curve. A study by Pichler et al. (2020) found that in states where workers gained access to paid sick leave because of FFCRA had 400 fewer confirmed COVID-19 cases per day, per state. Moreover, paid sick leave helps increase testing. A national survey showed that 55% percent of people say they would be “extremely more likely” to get tested and 78% said they would be at least somewhat more likely to get tested for COVID-19 if they knew they had the paid sick leave to quarantine if they test positive.
Paid leave could help close the gender equity gap from the pandemic. According to a recent Washington Post op-ed from Melinda Gates: “Recent jobs reports paint a grim picture of an economy that is hemorrhaging jobs held by women (865,000 in September alone), some of whom may never return to the workforce. A survey by the Lean In organization and the McKinsey and Company consulting firm found that a staggering 1 in 4 women are considering downshifting their careers or leaving their jobs because of the pandemic.” Additionally, a recent survey by BPC found that one quarter of the women who left work did so due to caregiving reasons. Paid leave could help them stay employed while meeting caregiving responsibilities.
The urgent need for pandemic relief suggests that no good effort be stalled in want of the perfect. That said, it is our sincere hope that either now, or at some point in early 2021 Congress addresses paid leave. It is a policy lever uniquely suited for the fallout from this crisis. An emergency extension of FFCRA for the winter months would help to limit the virus spread and provide businesses and families with more options for weathering the storm until the vaccine. Every worker should have access to paid sick leave in a public health crisis.
But more than that, the absence of paid leave points just how challenging it’s become for working parents (and in particular women) to juggle child care and workplace responsibilities in a culture that tends to minimize caregiving responsibilities while keeping up the veneer that people can “have it all,” suggesting that the problem is more with the worker (woman) than the company or national policy – even in a pandemic!
Paid leave can help to ease some of that tension. It enjoys widespread public support, is pro-work, pro-family, and cost-effective. There are many ways that paid family leave can be provided in a bipartisan way, both in this crisis and beyond it – including through reforms to the unemployment insurance system that could cross political lines, as one of us has proposed.
The bipartisan effort at delivering COVID-19 relief gives us hope of a sea change in Washington, that there will be more room to consider cross-cutting reforms that strengthen the foundation of America’s economy and families. A good place to start is with paid leave.
Adrienne Schweer is a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center leading the Paid Family Leave Project. Abby McCloskey is founder of McCloskey Policy LLC and a member of the AEI-Brookings Paid Leave Working Group.