By Jules Blech ’24
The COVID-19 pandemic forced many parents and children to work and learn from home, burdening families with additional responsibilities. Not only did parents have to take care of their children without daycare or external help, but they also had to care for sick loved ones while financially supporting their families. Universal paid parental and sick leave would have alleviated the stress on caregivers that the pandemic amplified. Universal paid leave should be enacted in the United States because it would have a positive impact on child growth and development, maternal health and participation in the workforce.
The Build Back Better bill, which the House of Representatives passed last November, would guarantee four weeks of paid leave to eligible workers when they experience the birth or placement of a child, a serious health condition or when a family member needs care. However, this bill has not reached the Senate floor, and it does not look like it will anytime soon. The benefits of universal paid leave are enormous, and Congress should enact this critical policy.
Universal paid leave would encourage healthy child growth and development by extending child care by parents and caregivers, lowering stress levels in families and reducing financial insecurity. The extended period of childcare allows parents to more consistently breastfeed, take their children to doctor’s appointments and identify any other needs or issues that may arise. There also tends to be lower stress levels during pregnancy because parents do not have to worry about whether or not they will be able to take care of their child after birth. With guaranteed income, families can more reliably afford food, medicine and other supplies that a newborn needs. A study of California’s paid leave program found that paid leave led to a decline in infant hospitalizations and, ultimately, better health outcomes for youth.
Universal paid leave also supports mothers after pregnancy both physically and professionally. According to a study from the Childbirth Connection, a nonprofit organization supporting maternity care, in the first two months after the birth of their child, 77% of mothers said that pain interfered at least “a little bit” in their daily activities and 14% of mothers even indicated that the pain hindered them “quite a bit” or “extremely.” Additionally, a study published by Duke University found that new mothers with leave periods of less than six months after childbirth are at a higher risk of postpartum depressive symptoms than mothers with longer leave periods. Without paid leave, mothers—especially single mothers—often feel pressured to rush back to work to support their family, which may increase pain, risks of postpartum depression and complications with their pregnancies.
The lack of paid leave also diminishes participation in the labor force, especially for women and workers who experience serious illnesses. After giving birth, 30 percent of working women leave their jobs because of a lack of paid leave, and 59 percent of colorectal cancer patients do the same. With universal paid leave, people do not have to quit their jobs or reduce time at work to take care of themselves and their loved ones; instead, they can support their families while getting well. This also disproportionally affects people of color, as women of color are more likely than white women to be the primary income-earner for their family. When employees leave the workforce due to a lack of paid leave, both the economy and individual families are negatively impacted. With universal paid leave, family income stabilizes and individuals participate in the labor force with greater consistency.
The U.S. is in the minority of countries in not offering paid leave to its citizens. Even if the Build Back Better bill is passed by the Senate, the U.S. would still be behind on this issue. Of all countries that offer paid leave, only one out of 186 offers less than four weeks, according to the WORLD Policy Analysis Center.
Paid leave is extremely popular among the general public: according to a 2017 Pew Research Center poll, 85% of Americans supported paid sick leave and 82% of Americans supported paid maternal leave. Politicians, however, are much more divided, with Democrats generally advocating for federal and state-administered paid leave and most Republicans arguing that paid leave should be the the responsibility of the private sector.
In March 2021, only 6 percent of private industry workers in the lowest 10 percent of average wages had access to paid family leave, while 43 percent of private industry workers in the highest 10 percent of average wages had access to paid leave. Universal paid leave is not a priority for the private sector, and—due to the overwhelmingly positive effects paid leave has on the economy and society—the public sector must step into this domain. Guaranteeing universal paid leave would allow everyone to take care of themselves and their loved ones without worrying about how they will get food on the table.