Growing Attention on Paid Leave as a Dimension of Inequality

May 14, 2014

By Lauren French

President Obama, in his most recent State of the Union address,  predicted that fighting inequality would be the “defining project of our generation.” The President’s forecast reflects a growing concern among most Americans about rising economic inequality. Conversations about inequality often focus on the wage gap between those at the top and those at the bottom. However, increasingly, advocates, policymakers, and members of the public have come to recognize that other aspects of compensation, such as paid family and medical leave and earned sick time, are an important part of the equation. The relationships between inequality and these policies, along with others that enable workers to do their jobs and care for their families, are the focus of several new reports.  

The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently released, Work-Family Supports for Low-Income Families: Key Research Findings and Policy Trends, which provides an overview of research on the effects of paid family leave, paid sick leave, and workplace flexibility on the well-being of low-income working parents and their families. The paper notes the positive impact such policies have on child development, parents’ financial stability, employers’ productivity, and the public health. Pamela Winston, the author of the report, explains, “[A]ccess [to these policies] is highly skewed by wage levels and other job characteristics in ways that mean the lowest income families tend to have the least access to all types of work-family benefits.” Given the host of benefits associated with access to leave and flexibility, the paper underlines how unequal access further exacerbates existing inequalities.

A recent examination of data from the National Health Interview Study (NHIS) by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) also highlights the ongoing stratification of access to paid sick days. IWPR’s brief shows that fewer than three in ten workers making $19,999 a year or less have access to any paid sick days. In contrast, among those making $65,000 or more annually, eight in ten workers have access to paid sick days. Access to paid sick days also varies by race. Only 47 percent of Latino workers have access to paid sick days, compared with 64 percent of white workers and 62 percent of black workers. 

CLASP’s recently published brief, Access to Paid Leave: An Overlooked Aspect of Economic & Social Inequality, highlights other ways that lack of earned sick days and paid family and medical leave can entrench inequality, including the potential for job and wage loss among workers who lack protections but must take time away from work to care for themselves or their families. The brief also points to a recent survey showing that nearly half of low-wage workers (those in the lowest 25 percent of the wage scale) lack any form of paid leave: no vacation, no personal days, no sick days, and no family leave.

Media outlets have also been paying attention to this aspect of economic inequality. In a recent New York Times piece, Judith Warner argued that public policies to support working families are an obvious and simple part of the solution to growing inequality. Warner got at the crux of why unequal access to paid leave needs to be addressed as an urgent economic issue: “What this all means is that the people who are already in the most precarious economic circumstances are the most at risk for devastating loss of income – and assets – when they need to care for their children.” This is also true for workers who become ill themselves or need to care for other sick family members, such as parents or siblings.

With Thomas Pikkety’s book on inequality flying off the shelves, it is clear that Americans are eager to find solutions to the many problems that contribute to the current injustices in our economy. Paid leave and other policies to support workers with caregiving responsibilities are a critical but often overlooked part of the solution. 

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