The moment I realized that the COVID-19 pandemic was making its way to New York City, the first thing I thought was: How am I going to work while also taking care of my 4-year-old and my disabled mother, should preschool shut down or one of them get sick? I remember telling my boss that I had no idea what the coming months would mean for my job performance.
She reminded me that I had the option of Paid Family and Medical Leave, a safety-net benefit here in New York, to help me. I exhaled, reassured that I wouldn’t lose my job if one or all of us happened to get sick.
Midway through the pandemic, my mother’s caregiver came down with the coronavirus and we had to act. Thankfully, because of a patchwork of state policy, emergency legislation and my flexible work environment, my sister and I were able to take care of my mom while the caregiver took much needed time to recover.
Unfortunately, this is not the norm across the country.
In 2019, more than 32 million people did not have access to a single paid sick day, and four out of five workers did not have access to paid family leave, according to the Center for American Progress. This policy is at odds with virtually every other developed country, and we are suffering dearly because of it. As the coronavirus raced across the United States, millions of Americans were forced to choose between their health and their job. That is a choice that no person should ever have to make.
On a state by state basis, there has been success in helping provide working families the support they need. For example, on Sept. 30, a new law went into effect in New York State to provide permanent sick leave to workers. New York is also one of eight states, in addition to the District of Columbia, that have paid family and medical leave programs.
We’re tiptoeing toward progress in Washington. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, passed in March 2020, provides 14-days of paid leave for workers affected by the pandemic. Yet this emergency legislation is temporary, set to expire on Dec. 31. Also, it does not apply to all businesses — leaving out an estimated 70-100 million people — nor does it account for the extensive impact that COVID-19 has on families.
This patchwork of state and emergency legislation is helping our country, but it is not enough. What we really need in place is a systemic solution, a national paid family and medical leave program for all.
The American public realizes this. According to a May 2020 national survey by Lake Research Partners, which The Opportunity Agenda highlights in a recent report, voters overwhelmingly believe that it would have been “helpful to the country if we had a national paid family and medical leave policy implemented before the COVID-19 outbreak.”
The survey also notes that communities of color, women in particular, have been disproportionately affected by the economic consequences of COVID-19, especially those working in the service industry — the “essential workers” that we applaud throughout the quarantine. They are the ones least likely to have paid leave and most likely to have to choose between their health and a paycheck.
Today, we have a window of opportunity to change this. With the nation paying close attention, we can pass comprehensive and equitable paid family and medical leave for all. New York has taken an important step by passing policy at the state level, but we need federal policy that includes job protection for all leave-takers, progressive wage replacement, and inclusive family definitions (including LGBTQ couples) to address our nation’s health-care crisis.
COVID-19 has shown how desperately we need to guarantee comprehensive paid family and medical leave to every working person in this country, both during the pandemic and more permanently with long-term legislation.
I ask myself, what more do we need to understand this? After all that we’ve been through, there is no going back.
This op-ed was originally published in the New York Daily News and can be found here.