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All workers deserve paid family leave ⁠— not just the lucky high earners getting it now

The parents who are getting left behind are disproportionately women, people of color and low-wage workers, explains Gloria Blackwell, the CEO of the AAUW.
Image: Paid leave
Mother with newborn baby daughter.Anchiy / Getty Images

When my children were born a couple of decades ago, paid maternity leave was a rare employee benefit. Some moms I knew took time off without pay, and a few others rushed back to work way too soon after giving birth. The more fortunate ones cobbled together vacation time, sick days and disability leave so they could have a few months off without sacrificing a paycheck.

Paid time off for new dads? Back then, any kind of paternity leave just wasn’t a thing.

It’s been terrific watching things change in the years since. I’m hearing more and more encouraging stories of new mothers—and fathers—who get paid time off when they welcome their baby into their lives. According to the Employer Trends Report by the PL+US (Paid Leave in the United States) campaign, 27 percent of employers offered paid caregiving leave to at least some of their employees in 2019, up from 16 percent the previous year. The momentum toward paid family and medical leave in the private sector “shows no sign of slowing,” the report said.

Gloria L. Blackwell, CEO of the American Association of University Women.
Gloria L. Blackwell, CEO of the American Association of University Women.AAUW

But — and this is an enormous qualifier — most of the parents who get parental leave work in white-collar jobs at companies that offer a lot of other great employee benefits. The parents who don’t? Sadly, they are disproportionately women, people of color and low-wage workers.

A forthcoming AAUW/Ipsos survey of women in New York City found those who make more than the median income are much more likely to get paid leave than those making below that threshold. And the PL+US report revealed that workers in the woman-dominated education and health services sectors, were among those least likely to have paid family leave. In the transportation and utilities sectors, where people of color make up over a quarter of the workforce, paid leave is also a rarity. Ditto for the hospitality and leisure fields, where minimum-wage earners makeup over half of the workforce.

This is appalling, but why am I not surprised? It’s the familiar story: Those at certain levels get what they need while so many other American workers, whose labor we all benefit from tremendously, get left behind.

Let’s face it: Paid leave is an equity issue, plain and simple. And that is why we need a national policy providing every employee with the same basic level of this benefit. All children deserve parental care and attention, regardless of what kind of work their parents do.

A national paid leave policy makes good economic sense, too. American businesses benefit when they ensure that families are taken care of. Parents who have time to recover physically and emotionally from childbirth return to work better able to do their jobs. And when employers support a healthy work-life balance, they are likely to attract and retain a competitive workforce.

Paid leave could also help narrow the persistent gender wage gap. One reason women still get paid just 83 cents on a man’s dollar is that women remain more likely than men to leave the workforce to deal with caregiving. Having the paid parental leave —for both moms and dads—holds the promise of reversing that trend.

Let’s not squander the opportunity to make this happen. If we want to ensure a full recovery from the devastation of the pandemic, we need to enact a federal paid leave policy now. Most importantly, it needs to be inclusive and equitable, ensuring that it meets the needs of all workers, not just a fortunate few.

There is nothing at all radical about this proposition: A handful of states have already put these programs in place, with great success, but you shouldn’t have to live in the right zip code to be able to care for your family. Besides, it’s what the rest of the world has been doing for decades. The U.S. is the only major industrialized country in the world that does not offer paid time off to new moms and dads.

President Biden campaigned on the promise of a paid leave policy and it must remain a key feature of the Build Back Better, which the House passed and the Senate is considering. What started as a proposal for 12 weeks of paid time off has been whittled down to just four, which is not great but better than nothing: It’s a foundation from which we can build.

Let’s not stop the momentum toward progress that I’ve witnessed in my lifetime: Now is the moment to enact a federal policy to ensure that paid parental leave is available to every American – to the benefit of us all.

Gloria L. Blackwell is CEO of the American Association of University Women, officially founded in 1881, is a non-profit organization that advances equity for women and girls through advocacy, education, and research.