Access to Paid Leave: An Overlooked Aspect of Economic & Social Inequality

By Liz Ben-Ishai

In recent months, economic inequality has been a focal point of political and popular debates. President Obama has taken executive action several times in 2014 to try to move the needle on what many feel is an unacceptable level of inequality in the United States. He has raised the minimum wage for employees of federal contractors, extended overtime protections to a larger proportion of workers, and addressed disparities in pay between men and women by requiring greater transparency from federal contractors. All of these actions have the potential to reduce inequality and give those at the bottom of the wage scale a needed boost.

But it’s not just wages that contribute to and perpetuate inequality; other forms of compensation, including access to paid leave, play a considerable role in our nation’s growing economic disparities. Today, CLASP released a brief that reviews the evidence and implications of paid leave as an important facet of economic and social inequality. The brief shows that there are major inequities in access to paid sick days and paid family and medical leave, and it highlights some of the effects these inequities have on working families.

For a mother who, after a tough job search, finally finds a job that pays above minimum wage, a sick baby can make those extra dollars—or even the job itself—melt away. That’s because, if she’s like the 70 percent of low-wage workers who lack paid sick days, she’ll lose a day’s wages to care for her son or daughter—or worse.  An astonishing one in five low-wage working moms have lost a job due to sickness or caring for a family member.

Low-wage workers are even worse off when they need longer leaves from work in order to address a more serious illness or provide longer-term care to family members. Almost all (95 percent) workers in the lowest 25 percent of wage earners have no paid family leave. As a result, as many as half of all women with less than a high school education give up their jobs when a baby arrives— likely because they have no other option.

Disparities in access to paid leave exist between lower- and higher-wage earners, but also between workers of differing education levels, racial and ethnic groups, and more. Perhaps most disconcerting is the fact that many firms treat the workers on the factory floor in a vastly different manner than those in the C-suites. In fact, it’s those making the lowest wages who can least afford to go without paid leave, yet they are most likely to be left behind by their employers.

The good news is that more and more Americans believe this is unacceptable. They are calling for policymakers to take action, which includes passing legislation to guarantee workers access to paid leave. As noted in the brief, majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents agree that such laws are necessary. Across the country, campaigns promoting sick days and family leave insurance  at the local, state, federal levels are bringing to life Americans’ hope for a more equitable society. The success of these campaigns shows that many people now recognize the importance of paid leave. Workers need higher wages, but in order to earn and retain those wages, they also need time to care for their families and their own health.

Read the brief.