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Elizabeth (who asked that her last name not be used to protect her privacy) and her husband spent weeks trying to find the right doctors who could give their son the care and treatment he needed. It was like having another full-time job, she said. And then her husband got sick, too.
She could have faced a brutal choice: keep working and leave the care of her son and husband to others or quit and look after them herself. One choice carries great emotional costs, the other professional ones. Both come with a heavy financial burden. But we were able to help Elizabeth do right by her family and her career because we offer paid family leave, which allowed her to set her work aside to focus on caring for her loved ones without losing her job and source of income when it mattered most.
Too many Americans don’t have this option. The United States is the only industrialized country in the world that does not mandate paid maternity or parental leave and one of just a handful of industrialized countries without a paid family leave policy that allows workers to take care of sick family members. And yet, an estimated 53 million American adults act as caretakers for family members or friends.
Not mandating paid leave is inexcusable. It hurts workers, businesses and our economy. Policymakers and business leaders have a moral and economic imperative to provide more assistance.
Congress should move quickly to pass the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, introduced by Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), as part of the next recovery package. It would provide every worker in the United States up to 12 weeks of paid time off to care for their own health, a new child or a sick parent and spouse. This would provide immense relief to so many Americans, including members of the “sandwich generation” who are looking after both children and aging parents. The stress this causes has been exacerbated by the pandemic, but the challenge of balancing professional and personal responsibilities predated and will outlast Covid-19. Establishing national paid family leave is a critical element of how we can build back better.
But we don’t have to wait for Congress to make progress on this all-too important issue. Business leaders can implement strong paid leave policies of their own in addition to using their platforms to advocate for a comprehensive national policy.
Paid leave policies make businesses stronger. They help employers demonstrate that we have our employees’ backs when it’s most important, which can encourage retention, support productivity and foster a culture where people can do their best work. Paid leave benefits can also help reverse a drag on our economy. The United States loses an estimated $22.5 billion in wages yearly because of the widespread dearth of paid family and medical leave benefits.
We know firsthand that businesses can offer paid leave without breaking the bank. Our policy has cost just 10% of what we’d projected. And past surveys have found that a majority of companies that instituted paid family leave did so without significant added costs or negative impacts. Paid family leave is not just good for employees in a moment of crisis; it’s good for businesses, too — a relatively small investment with a very meaningful return on investment, or ROI.
Providing paid family leave also expands equity and opportunity — something many companies vowed to do after last summer’s overdue (and ongoing) reckoning with structural and systemic racism in our country. Current leave policies disproportionately disadvantage women and workers of color. Black and Hispanic workers are less likely than White, non-Hispanic workers to have access to paid parental leave, which compounds financial strains and widens an already yawning wealth gap. And 2.5 million women have left the workforce since the pandemic began in 2020, many because they understandably could not shoulder both a full workload and unyielding family and home care burdens. Without a federal paid leave policy, our nation is failing them, further eroding the gains women have made in the workplace over the past 30 years.
The question isn’t whether America can afford to institute paid family leave; it’s whether we can afford not to. I look at our experience at Levi Strauss & Co. and the overwhelming public support for paid leave and see the clear answer. Congress must pass the FAMILY Act and enshrine into law comprehensive paid leave benefits for workers, and business leaders should join companies like ours that have enacted programs on their own. Workers like Elizabeth shouldn’t have to choose between earning a living and caring for loved ones. Because we had made the investment in paid family leave, she was able to help her son and her husband recover, and she’s now back at work. It was a benefit for us all.
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