Paid Family and Medical Leave – A Privilege or Right?

By Akosua Meyers

No one should have to wrestle with whether to take time off from work to care for loved ones, family, or self, especially during a pandemic when working parents and caregivers have limited options for external support.

I am a mom of three, my oldest has autism and a variety of disabilities that require round-the-clock care and interventions. I am also caregiving for my aging mom. I live in a household categorized as multi-generational.

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, I found myself without external supports for my oldest, who without it has serious behavioral issues that include self-harm. My aging mom was in poor health and needed round-the-clock care. And like many working parents with small children, distance learning became the norm with little notice. Likewise, telework became the new normal. The multitude of needs that surfaced for me was overwhelming. I questioned my ability to be a good mother, daughter, and spouse. 

Amid the fatigue and restless nights, I always felt the one thing I needed access to the most was paid leave to care for my loved ones. In the past year, my need for that has never wavered. 

I was able to take time off, for both extended and short periods, to meet the variety of evolving care priorities. And when Congress made special provisions under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) to provide paid leave during the pandemic, that added another layer of options for me to take the time I needed to support my family and myself. I had a boss who encouraged me to slow down and take time off not just for my family, but for me as well. She clearly conveyed that I mattered. That support and access to paid leave made juggling what felt like little fires daily seem manageable. 

I don’t share my story for your empathy. I share it because I am part of a select few who have been fortunate enough to have employers, past and present, who recognize the value of providing paid leave for their workforce. These are employers who have not only committed themselves to ensuring that every staff person has access to paid leave, they have also committed to advancing an internal organizational culture that ensures staff can take full advantage of paid leave to meet their care needs, both anticipated and unexpected. The nonprofit organizations I have worked for are committed to social and economic justice and understand that paid leave should not be a privilege but a fundamental workers’ rights issue that should be equitably applied to all. 

Sadly, a large percent of working people who need paid leave don’t have access to it. Our nation has a history of family leave policies that have been discriminatory on the basis of race, gender, and class. Equitable access in the U.S. has lagged significantly in comparison to other countries. Indeed, many industries have deliberately thwarted workers who have organized to demand these necessities that support work/life balance. Yet these employers have more than sufficient budgets to cover the cost of their workforce taking overdue and much-needed paid leave. 

The pandemic has exposed the major gaps and inequities in our system. It validated what many organizing and policy advocates for paid medical and family leave have warned policymakers about for years—paid medical and family leave is a necessity that has health and economic implications if not offered. One cannot dismiss the disproportionate harm of the pandemic on people with low incomes and women—particularly Black and Brown women—working low wage jobs where taking time off means significant loss of pay. Far too many have suffered devastating losses because employers did not offer paid leave or other benefits.

My care story is not unique. To some it may even be considered the tip of the iceberg. Figuring out how to provide care becomes an overwhelming burden when you are not able to take leave from work for yourself or your loved ones for fear of losing your job or missing a paycheck. Regardless of one’s care needs, the notion of ensuring paid leave to working individuals, families, and the public at large should be an economic, health, and safety issue. Putting our faith in companies or multinational corporations to do their part to ensure their workforces have complete access to paid leave equates to kicking the can down the road, hoping someone in good faith picks up the can to shoulder the responsibility of their workforce. That’s why Congress needs to pass legislation creating a national paid family and medical leave program. 

Paid family and medical leave should not be seen as a privilege that only a few can access because they happen to work for employers who value the health, safety, and economic wellbeing of their workforce. If the pandemic unearthed any major lessons, a glaring one was that without paid leave a significant percentage of the American workforce, including essential workers, will perish.