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Women and Men Need Time to Care

Amy Traub

Demos’ new briefing book, Everyone’s Economy, offers an economic agenda that will enable all of us to thrive. Women’s History Month is an opportunity to dig into the ways that a race-conscious, populist economic agenda must elevate women. Over the next 2 weeks, Demos will share a series of blog posts that explore different ways that policy can impact women’s economic opportunity and stability. Today we look at how guaranteeing paid time to care benefits women.

At some point in our lives, we all need time to care for loved ones or ourselves, whether we are bonding with a new child, caring for an ailing parent, or recovering from a serious illness. Because women still take on responsibility for most caregiving, access to paid time to care both immediately increases women’s incomes and helps women who take leave retain their jobs over the longer term. Providing leave on an equal basis to fathers and male caregivers (and encouraging men to take it) also reduces discrimination against women

Yet in 2017, only 13 percent of private sector workers had access to paid family leave through their employer. Low-paid workers and people of color were least likely to have access to paid time to care. Without paid time away from work, Americans put their health at risk, face economic hardship, and are unable to care for those who matter most to them in a time of need.

To a great extent, the American workplace is built around the image of a male worker with a wife who is not employed outside the home and is available to provide care for children, aging relatives and loved ones who fall sick. Yet this norm never applied to most households of color or LGBTQ households, and does not apply to the majority of American households today: Currently, most families with children have all adults in the workforce, and mothers are key breadwinners. Meanwhile, the number of working people responsible for caring for elderly loved ones continues to grow as the population ages. Paid time to care is the norm in virtually every other country, yet the U.S. guarantees only unpaid time off work under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Even access to unpaid FMLA leave is unavailable to about 40 percent of working people, due to restrictions in the law.

We need a universal, public system of paid time to care, because ensuring that the next generation gets a healthy, loving start in life—and that families don’t fall into poverty as they struggle to care for one another in times of sickness—are society-wide challenges, not problems that individual families and businesses can solve on their own. The Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, currently before Congress, would establish the U.S.’s first-ever national system of paid family and medical leave. The bill would provide working people with up to 12 weeks per year of paid time to care for family and medical needs. Benefits would cover time taken for pregnancy, childbirth recovery, caring for the serious health condition of a child, parent, spouse, or domestic partner, birth or adoption of a child, and military caregiving. Workers taking leave would receive two-thirds of their typical monthly wages, up to a capped monthly maximum. Low- and middle-income workers have a greater share of their income replaced. Significantly, all working people, including part-time, contingent, and self-employed workers and people working for small employers would be eligible for benefits.

A more comprehensive proposal could include longer duration of time to care (for example, Canada offers 12 months of leave benefits to new parents, which can be extended to 18 months at a lower rate of pay); a greater share of pay replaced for the lowest-paid workers; leave that protects the jobs of workers at small businesses; and benefits that cover a greater range of loved ones, such as siblings or “chosen family”—a person, designated in advance, who shares a close relationship.

For a deeper look at paid time to care, download Demos’ full briefing book and click “Ensure Paid Time to Care” in the table of contents.