A briefing paper prepared by Jeff Hayes, Women’s Bureau, U.S. Department of Labor, and H. Elizabeth Peters, Urban Institute, for the Council on Contemporary Families symposium The COVID-19 Pandemic and the Future of Gender Equality (PDF).
Many workers will provide care for a newborn or for a family member with a serious illness and will experience the challenges of trying to manage the competing responsibilities of working and caregiving. Indeed, increases in the labor force participation of women, the increasing number of single parent families (and families where the female is the primary breadwinner), and changes in the nature of work (e.g., the 24/7 economy) have contributed to greater work-family conflict. The consequences of managing these dual responsibilities are also unequally experienced across gender, race/ethnicity, age, and socio-economic status. These challenges were exacerbated when the COVID pandemic severely limited the availability of the formal care infrastructure (e.g., childcare and school), and families had to increase their caregiving activities. Policy makers and employers have attempted to support working caregivers by developing policies such as paid family leave and paid sick leave – including increased access to paid leave during COVID – but access to these supports are not equally distributed.
Some employers provide paid leave as part of an employee benefit package. The proportion of workers who have access to employer-provided paid parental or family leave varies across different surveys. The National Compensation Survey tends to report the lowest numbers (24% of private industry workers with access to paid family leave in 2022) but a greater percentage of workers in other surveys of workers report being able to take paid leave for family and medical reasons These types of benefits increased early in the pandemic, declined in the second and third years of the pandemic, and have started to increase again in 2023. But, they are still more likely to be available to those who work full-time, have high wages, and are highly educated.
For more than 30 years, most employees have been protected by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) when taking leave from work to care for themselves, for a new child, or for a seriously ill child, spouse or parent. FMLA provides the right to job-protected, unpaid time off to eligible employees. While FMLA was a major first step in public leave benefits in 1993, FMLA’s protections are not equally available to all workers – only 56% of employees are eligible – and lack of pay puts leave taking out of reach for many. Yet, these protections are crucial for employees and working families. One in five Black (21%) and Hispanic (20%) employees without FMLA protections report that taking family and medical leave resulted in losing their job – higher than reported by those covered under the FMLA (6% and 16%, respectively).
To address disparities in access to FMLA and lack of paid family leave more generally, since 2002 fourteen states, including the District of Columbia, have adopted public policies that provide paid family and medical leave benefits when workers need time off for covered purposes. These state policies also cover a broader set of workers than the FMLA by including those working in smaller businesses and those with shorter work experience. The primary inequality in these laws relates to geography—only workers living in these states are covered.
One other type of inequality relates to differences in access to paid leave for new parents compared to access to paid leave for family caregiving. Until recently, most of the attention and research on paid leave focused on new parents; yet as the population continues to age, the need for eldercare and for supporting those who provide that care will only continue to increase. There is a similar disparity in access to paid leave for eldercare providers compared to parental leave. One study shows that 53 percent of fulltime workers report that they have access to paid leave for parental leave versus only 42 percent reporting access to paid leave for elder care of other types of family caregiving, and these disparities have been corroborated in other studies as well. Studies have also found that the take-up rate for family care benefits is also much lower than for parental care, and that some of this difference has been attributed to a lack of awareness about these types of benefits. This discrepancy in availability between parental and family paid leave is also seen across OECD countries: while 37 countries provide paid leave for new mothers only 32 provide paid leave to new fathers. For family care, 35 provide paid leave to parents caring for children with health needs and only 25 provide paid leave for caregivers of a family member who is not a child. Among the OECD countries that do have family caregiving leave, that leave is often less generous than what is available for new parents.
The benefits of paid family and medical leave are supported by research on existing state programs as well as international evidence. Positive outcomes for paid parental leave include two-generational benefits from improved birthweight outcomes, increased breastfeeding, and lower infant mortality. The introduction of paid family leave in California led to more fathers taking leave, and taking longer leaves, both of which can have long-term impacts on father involvement. For those with aging parents or spouses in poor health, living in a state with paid family leave increases labor market attachment as well as an increased likelihood of being a working caregiver and a decline in reports of being depressed or in poor health. Moreover, evidence shows that paid family leave programs can help reduce inequality in access to leave. Indeed, simulation models suggest that a public program does increase paid leave benefits for lower wage workers and lower income families. Data for Washington, the first combined paid family and medical leave program to provide benefits contemporaneously, shows that benefits from the state program are disproportionately reaching women and workers of color needing medical or family leaves.
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic made the overall lack of support (and the disparities in that support) for working parents and family caregivers impossible to ignore. Workers needed paid leave when they were sick with COVID, when they were required to quarantine after being exposed to COVID, or when they needed to provide care for sick children or family members, or provide care when schools or child care providers were closed. The US federal government responded to this crisis by passing the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which required certain employers to provide employees with paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave for specified reasons related to COVID-19. The FFCRA broadened the allowable reasons for taking paid leave to include not only workers’ own health needs, but also to meet family caregiving needs from both illness and mitigation efforts such as school and child care closures. However, exemptions in the FFCRA meant millions of workers were not covered. The policy was only in place temporarily and expired on December 31, 2020. Data on take up of the FFCRA benefits provided as tax credits to employers is sparse, but GAO has reported that employers’ low awareness or understanding and lack of administrative report for accessing credits may have reduced usage of the credit based on interviews with business representatives and payroll or tax professionals.
In addition to the federal COVID paid leave response, 10 states and 22 cities and counties enacted paid sick leave policies that exceeded FFCRA requirements. Examples of these extensions included allowing paid leave to be used to obtain a vaccination, extending eligibility to gig workers, and covering leave for those who were not actively sick, but who had been exposed to COVID and needed to quarantine. Many of these responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have since expired, but several states explicitly recognized the possibility of future health public health emergencies, and put in place policies that would provide additional paid leave supports when such public health emergencies were announced.
The COVID-19 pandemic served to highlight the challenges that families face in managing the dual responsibilities of work and caregiving, and served as a warning of how unanticipated events such as a public health emergency could completely undo the plans that families had developed for addressing such challenges. Research has documented the importance of paid leave in reducing the spread of COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic. Emergency policies were able to reach lower-wage service workers, reduce inequality in access to leave, and increase vaccination rates including among socially vulnerable populations. A great deal of suffering and lives might have been saved if such policies had been in place and familiar to workers at the start of the pandemic. Given the ongoing circulation of new variants and the threat of what a next virus might bring, COVID-19 strengthened the case for a national paid leave policy to protect workers and their families in health emergencies. Such a program should be broad, comprehensive, progressive, and responsibly financed. Based on existing state-level policies, a national policy should cover a wide range of family needs, provide leave for care needs across family types, provide adequate benefits to underpin family security, and protect jobs and workers from any retaliation for taking leave. It should also be structured to ensure that workers who need it most — low-income workers, workers of color, and other marginalized groups — can use it. This will require thoughtful design, outreach, and administration.
About the Authors
Jeff Hayes is a Survey Statistician with the U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
H. Elizabeth Peters is an Institute Fellow at the Urban Institute in Washington DC and a Professor Emerita in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management at Cornell University. She can be reached at email@example.com.