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Cutting paid leave hurts low-wage workers the most

Just 8 percent of low-wage workers have access to paid family leave, compared to 20 percent of all workers.

Members of Congress, parents, and caregiving advocates rally to support Build Back Better investments in home care, child care, paid leave, and expanded child tax credit payments in front of the US Capitol on October 21.
Paul Morigi for MomsRising Together/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

As it weighs what to keep in the budget bill, Congress is poised to abandon plans for a comprehensive paid family leave program yet again. Had the proposal been included, it would have brought low-wage workers — many of whom have no access to paid leave — a major new benefit.

The US is the only industrialized country that doesn’t guarantee workers paid leave, a gap that hits low-wage workers the hardest. According to a 2020 survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 8 percent of low-wage workers (people making less than $683 a week, or roughly $35,516 per year) have access to paid family leave, compared to 20 percent of all workers and 33 percent of higher-wage workers. And 49 percent of low-wage workers have paid sick leave, compared to the 75 percent of workers overall and 92 percent of higher-wage workers who have access to the benefit.

Racial disparities persist for leave policies as well: 43 percent of Black workers and 25 percent of Latino workers have access to paid parental leave compared to 50 percent of white workers, according to a 2012 study from the Center for American Progress. A lack of access to leave also has a more significant impact on women, who take on the majority of caregiving responsibilities for children and sick family members.

Advocates for paid family and sick leave emphasize that the program is critical for improving women’s retention in the workplace, children’s health care outcomes, and bonding between parents and children. It also ensures that people don’t have to choose between their wages and caring for a family member, a dynamic that can force people to drop out of the workforce altogether.

It seems many low-wage workers will continue to face that choice, however. Democrats are widely expected to shelve the paid leave provisions in their budget reconciliation bill because of internal disagreements about the measure. Democrats need all 50 senators in their caucus to pass the legislation, but opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) — who believes a leave program would burden businesses and wants a smaller overall bill — is likely to sink this provision.

For those hoping the US would adopt a federal paid leave program, the cut may be devastating. Democrats’ original $3.5 trillion budget resolution would have guaranteed 12 weeks of paid family and sick leave to all workers. There are efforts by longtime proponents of the program to convince Manchin to rethink his opposition. But for now, it appears the US will continue to guarantee zero weeks of paid family and sick leave.

Paid leave is not guaranteed for most workers

The budget reconciliation bill could have addressed a serious need: Because there’s still no federal program, many workers don’t have paid family and sick leave.

Currently, nine states and the District of Columbia have implemented some form of paid family and sick leave, though these programs differ significantly: Rhode Island offers four weeks, for instance, while Colorado provides 12. Some, but not all, companies offer paid leave as a benefit: 25 percent of employers who responded to a 2019 Kaiser Family Foundation survey said they offer paid family leave. A higher proportion, about 68 percent, provide paid sick leave, according to a 2017 Kaiser survey.

Under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act — which was established more than two decades ago — a majority of workers gained access to unpaid leave. However, 44 percent of workers still don’t qualify for the act’s benefits because it doesn’t apply to smaller companies and certain part-time workers.

Without such protections, workers who need to take time off in order to care for a new child or sick family member often have to deal with major wage losses, and potentially the loss of employment altogether. Women’s mass exodus from the workforce during the pandemic has been blamed, in part, on this dynamic: Roughly 1.5 million mothers left their jobs to address a new surge of needs, including child care.

Low-income workers, especially, see dire impacts from these choices: If they take unpaid time off work or leave their jobs, they’re more likely to incur debt, experience food insecurity, and delay medical care, according to the Center for Law and Social Policy. A 2018 study found that workers without access to paid sick leave were 1.41 times more likely to be receiving welfare benefits and 1.34 times more likely to receive food aid, compared to those who had such protections.

Opponents of establishing paid family and sick leave programs, including Manchin, have often cited the burden they could pose to businesses that may have to deal with additional staffing costs or reduced productivity. Researchers, however, have broadly found little harm to businesses in the states that have paid leave programs; some studies have found the lower turnover rates that result can, in fact, often incur costs savings.

The reconciliation bill was paid family and medical leave’s best chance

Democrats’ social spending bill was marked as the best opportunity to pass paid leave in the near term.

Although there’s bipartisan support for some type of program, Republicans and Democrats have long disagreed on how to pay for it. Democrats have typically favored a payroll tax, like the one that funds Social Security, which includes contributions from both workers and employees. Republicans are wary of more taxes, and have called for people to dip into their Social Security funds as a way of paying for these benefits. During the Trump administration, Ivanka Trump championed paid family leave, as did President Donald Trump. Paid leave for federal employees passed during the Trump administration, but universal paid leave efforts were unsuccessful.

Because most bills that pass through regular order would need 60 votes, Democrats would have to get 10 Republican senators on board with any leave policy to advance it, an outcome that’s unlikely.

Advocates for the policy have said they intend to continue fighting for it in the reconciliation bill, since it still hasn’t been finalized.

“Until the bill is printed, I will continue working to include paid leave in the Build Back Better plan,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), a longtime champion of the policy, said in a statement this week.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand speaks during a press conference supporting Build Back Better investments including paid leave on October 21.
Paul Morigi/Getty Images for MomsRising Together

Gillibrand told reporters Thursday that Manchin was still looking over research she’d shared about how paid leave programs are implemented and paid for in other countries.

If Manchin’s opposition continues, the proposal is probably dead for now — leaving millions of people to make tough decisions about how to approach the demands they face from work and family.