This week, while I juggled building a company, second-grade math homework, and Halloween costumes for my 7-year-old and 4-year-old daughters, I watched in disbelief as the paid leave proposal in the Build Back Better economic recovery package went from 12 weeks to four weeks—and then, yesterday, down to zero.
If you were scrolling my Instagram, you would think the only major news story this week was the government tragically not coming through for Americans, 73% of whom support paid family leave. Across my social-media feeds, friends and acquaintances were expressing the same fury and despondency that I was feeling. But when I looked up from my phone to talk about it with the men in my life—great men, who are supportive partners and fathers and leaders I admire—many hadn’t even heard the news. It was a discrepancy that, for me, highlighted one very important thing: Having no national paid parental leave program disproportionately harms women.
One in four women is back at work 10 days after giving birth. Ten days. To put that in perspective: It typically takes about six weeks for a woman’s body to recover after delivering a baby, more if she had a C-section or any complications. The physical toll of going back to work so soon has already been widely covered, often in heartbreaking detail—to say nothing of the mental and emotional effects, or the loss of bonding time that’s just as wrenching for adoptive and non-birth parents.
And with childcare at crisis-high levels of unaffordability nationwide—and the brunt of caregiving work falling disproportionately to mothers—many women find themselves pulled by financial necessity toward the other end of the spectrum: 43% of women who leave the workforce entirely after having a child do so because foregoing their income is still less expensive than paying for care.
Last month alone, over 300,000 women exited the workforce. That wasn’t an anomaly, either. In January 2021, the labor-force participation among women was at its lowest point since 1988. Even as the economy recovers from the strain of Covid, mothers remain out of the workforce at higher rates than other groups of workers who have left since the pandemic started.
We know the solution. But still, one in three Americans has no access to parental leave. That means 113 million Americans—overwhelmingly women, low-wage workers, and Black and Hispanic workers—don’t have a single day to care for themselves or family members. And to put a finer point on it, only 6% of low-wage workers have access to paid family leave; overall, just 20% of private sector employees do. With no federal provisions to ensure paid time off when it’s needed, many parents face difficult choices between losing income and taking care of their children.
Paid leave is a lever we can pull to begin to bring women back to work—and if we do, the benefits are dramatic and universal. A more gender-equal workforce means greater economic growth, greater productivity, higher employee morale, and higher wages across the board. In fact, new research from Lenore Palladino, a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, found that four weeks of paid leave would add $43 billion to the economy and create 65,000 new jobs.
The pandemic has highlighted the dramatic and long-standing unmet needs of working families, and if we can’t get this leave through Congress in a moment of crisis, when will we?
We are the only industrialized country in the world without a national paid parental leave program. Worldwide, new mothers receive an average of 29 weeks paid leave, and new fathers 16 weeks. Our chance to catch up to what the rest of the world already knows is rapidly slipping away.
Here’s what you can do:
Companies and leaders can publicly support paid leave in the Build Back Better package, using the hashtag #savepaidleave and join over 300 businesses in signing this letter to Congress.
Knowledge workers who have paid leave through their employer can advocate for federal paid leave for those workers who don’t, both by spreading awareness on social media and by sending a letter to their representatives in Congress.
Just as importantly, employees and leaders alike can normalize caregiving as a part of working life. Especially if you’re a manager with caregiving responsibilities, put those responsibilities out in the open. Make sure your employees and colleagues see when you’ve stepped away—a dedicated Slack emoji for caregiving is just one way to signify this—and be clear and communicative about your own scheduling needs. And if you’re someone with the power to shape your company’s leave policies, make sure those policies reflect the input and real needs of caregivers.
And there’s so much more. Earlier this year, we wrote a playbook with strategies to help organizations and leaders to build a better future. My expectation in writing it was that both the federal government and the private sector would take this obligation seriously, and that supporting families with paid family and medical leave was a priority for our government and business leaders.
It’s since become clear, in the absence of political solutions, that it’s now on the private sector to step up and create workplaces that retain and support working parents, without forcing them to choose between their paycheck and their kids. Every step taken toward that goal signals to our government that families, women, low-wage workers, and small businesses can’t wait any longer for policies that treat them humanely.