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The Need for Paid Leave Amidst Historic Unemployment and Caregiving Responsibilities

The Brief

You can find the summary of the poll findings and key takeaways here.

“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.”

A key finding of our recent Bipartisan Policy Center – Morning Consult poll of Americans on unemployment insurance was that paid leave would help workers meet unprecedented caregiving demands and transition back to work. As such, paid leave should be a core part of the next stimulus package.

When the pandemic struck, many workers found they lacked options for balancing their work and caregiving responsibilities, resulting in some going on unemployment insurance. While most workers receiving UI benefits were either furloughed (35%) or laid off (37%), 6% quit their jobs and caregiving needs related to school and child care closures were the leading reason why, behind fear of illness and job dissatisfaction.

Shockingly – though perhaps less so for anyone with children trying to balance work – the majority (52%) of parents who quit their jobs during the pandemic did so due to child care provider or school closures. Additionally, 37% of caregivers who quit did so to care for a sick family member and 20% of workers who quit did so due to other caregiving responsibilities.

While Congress put in place paid leave for workers with caregiving responsibilities through the Families First Act, preserving the crucial connection between employer and employee instead of necessitating unemployment, our survey suggests that access to these provisions was far from widespread.

The vast majority of workers (94%) currently on UI did not know or have the option of using paid leave from their employer during COVID-19, including those at firms with under 500 employees that were required to provide paid leave under the emergency leave provisions of the Families First Act. Additionally, workers at larger companies not covered by the paid leave provisions appear to have fared worse, with those previously employed by a company with 500+ employees 12 percentage points more likely than those at a company with less than 500 employees to have claimed UI because they were laid off or furloughed, though there are likely numerous reasons impacting this finding.

Without new options on the table, caregiving responsibilities will continue to challenge parents’ ability to return to work, especially for minorities and women. While looking for work is the primary activity of most unemployed persons, 26% of all UI recipients (roughly 8 million workers) primarily spend their time caregiving, including 59% of parents and 29% of those not actively looking for work.

Nearly half of UI recipients (44%) report that they are not actively looking for work or have declined on offer to return to work, and caregiving is a huge reason why.

Paid leave can help to provide a way out of this trap. Wider access to paid leave is vital for creating the necessary flexibility for caregivers and workers amidst continuing school, child, and adult care closures, and intermittent reopenings. 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.

Paid leave has numerous other benefits for taxpayers, workers, employers, and families. First, keeping workers connected to their employers through the Families First emergency paid leave program is more cost effective from a taxpayer perspective than allowing workers to go on unemployment insurance. BPC estimates that 12 weeks on unemployment insurance costs taxpayers approximately $4,000 more per person than 12 weeks of emergency paid family leave. Second, paid leave benefits help workers stay connected to their employers, allowing them to retain benefits and ease the return to work process relative to searching for a new job. Third, paid leave helps to limit contagion by encouraging sick workers or workers with COVID-19 exposure to stay home, creating a healthier work atmosphere and reducing fears around the return to work. Finally, the emergency paid leave program is paid for by the government not by businesses, reducing the cost burden on employers during this challenging time.

As Congress crafts the next COVID-19 relief package, expanding the emergency paid family leave provisions (learn more about who qualifies here), should be a top priority. The existing package provides tax credits to companies and job protection to workers to cover up to 10 days of paid sick leave and 10 weeks of paid family leave to help address these escalating caregiving needs, but only covers workers at companies with less than 500 employees and it expires at the year’s end. Congress should lift the 500 employee cap, expand coverage to new parents, and extend the program to June of 2021 to cover a likely second wave.

As shown in our polling and elsewhere, workers overwhelmingly support making paid leave access more widespread. This was the case before the pandemic and is certainly even more so the case today. With the virus expected to continue to affect communities for months to come, paid family leave is vital to supporting workers amidst historic caregiving responsibilities.

This blog post has been revised from its original version. BPC originally reported that 23% of UI recipients are not looking for work. The blog post has been revised to reflect that 44% of UI recipients report that they are not actively looking for work or have declined an offer to return to work.

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