COVID-19 has taken the lives of nearly a quarter-million Americans; people who, I imagine, never anticipated being the victims of a global health pandemic and failed government leadership. As well, the coronavirus has altogether changed how we live, interact and maneuver in our day-to-day lives. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard my friends say, “I just want things to go back to normal.”
The new administration will face an electorate yearning for normal and a slew of unprecedented challenges when they assume office in January. Obviously, one of the challenges awaiting them is the failed handling and mismanagement of the coronavirus. The President-elect has already warned of a dark winter as the United States is consistently setting new daily records for COVID diagnoses. Some public health experts have estimated nearly 400,000 deaths by Inauguration Day. Black and brown faces will disproportionately make up these deaths, as they have been most infected with — and affected by — the virus.
It is Black and brown people that are most likely to be essential workers — employed in industries that require them to interact with the public on an on-going basis. As such, these same communities are amongst those most likely to not have access to paid family leave. According to the National Partnership for Women & Families, only 19% of the U.S. workforce has access to paid family leave. Of that, only 43% of Black people and 25% of Latinos report having access to any paid time off to care for themselves, their loved ones or a new child. These disparities not only have detrimental impacts on our families, friends and neighbors — they also have devastating implications for our economy.
Historically, we’ve consistently undervalued our labor force. We know this because activists and policy wonks like me are still screaming that we need greater economic justice in this country. Quality affordable childcare, affordable housing and paid family leave are commonplace in other countries, but the void of them in the United States has only magnified and exacerbated the vulnerabilities of our economy and our workforce. Paid family leave must be a central component of further COVID-19 economic relief.
The President-elect has signaled that paid family leave will be a part of his COVID-19 economic relief. However, the plan isn’t nearly as broad and expansive as our workforce deserves. In fact, one could even make the argument that it will merely extend the existing legislation that was passed in the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act (set to expire at the end of the year). While that provision was an immediate first step in the early days of the pandemic, we can’t lose any more time in passing comprehensive, wide-reaching policy that can save both our workforce and our economy.
A newly minted President Biden should make adequate, affordable and accessible paid family leave the chief priority in his first 100 days. Doing so will signal that the Black, brown and Indigenous labor that has built this country has a friend in the White House.
It will signal that the days of choosing between going to work to sustain your livelihood or caring for yourself (or a loved one) are coming to an end. It will signal that new parents can comfortably take time to care for and bond with their new child instead of rushing back to work for fear of losing money. It will also mean that our long-term economic prospects are promising.
I’ve long said that family centered public policy and a strong economic environment (for business to thrive and grow) aren’t competing interests. When we take care of our people, industry and commerce also wins. Paid family leave has been shown to increase employee retention, productivity and overall morale. Most importantly, paid family leave can have substantial benefits for businesses. According to the Center for American Progress, “employers providing work-family programs can attract higher-quality workers, reduce absenteeism and tardiness … and reduce employee turnover.” While other researchers have argued that the cost of paid family leave far outweighs the costs of maintaining the status quo.
The time is ripe for true economic justice. We know that recovering from this global pandemic is inextricably tied to our economic recovery. Additionally, this virus has taught us that when we don’t prioritize our workforce our economy is brought to its knees. Affordable, accessible and adequate paid family leave is the best first step to “building back better” (to quote the President-elect). It is also the most urgent next step to take as we collectively stare down an onslaught of new diagnoses and renewed stay-at-home orders. Bold aggressive action to pass a paid family leave policy can literally be the lifeline that saves a person, a family and/or an entire community. We don’t have a minute to spare.