Annie Sartor, a senior director at the advocacy group PL+US (Paid Leave for the United States), said the pandemic may have helped turn the tide of public opinion — and shift political will — to address the need for additional protections for workers.
When the group started in 2016, “it was pretty unheard of to see these really generous paid leave policies that are more common among employers now,” she said. “And then the pandemic hit and everything changed,” said Sartor, whose organization drafted the letter and coordinated the signature gathering.
“This is the closest we’ve ever been to winning paid family and medical leave,” she said. “We have a White House that is embracing paid leave and knows it’s critical. We have a Congress that’s ready to act, and this is why frankly businesses are acting now. To have almost 200 companies come out and go on the record in support of a public policy position like paid leave is really unprecedented.”
The letter calls for Congress to create a “permanent paid family and medical leave policy,” but it does not offer specifics. Sartor said that it was intentionally left broad but that the group wanted paid leave to address three key areas: leave for parents surrounding the birth of a child or an adoption, for people taking time to care for a sick family member, and personal sick and medical leave.
“Making paid leave a reality for all Americans is an economic necessity,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), said in a statement to The Washington Post. “Not having to choose between your job and taking care of a new child or a sick family member would be a real breakthrough for everyday Americans.”
Previous efforts on Capitol Hill to advance more robust paid leave aimed to grant workers as much as 12 weeks of paid time off to recover from illness or childbirth, or to provide care for a loved one. Advocates also have pointed to the ability of paid-leave programs to address inequality in the workforce, as women, people of color and low-wage earners are disproportionately locked out of existing paid-leave programs.
“We don’t see it as a political issue. We see it as an equality issue,” said Laura Watt, a vice president at beverage producer Diageo North America, one of the letter’s signatories. “We just believe it’s the right thing to do: It levels the playing field and gives everyone the same opportunities.”
The company offers its employees six months of parental leave and has given employees time off to vote, care for family members during the pandemic and get vaccinated.
PL+US representatives say leave protections should be included in infrastructure legislation because “care infrastructure” supports a person’s ability to work and be productive, much as subways and roads do.
This week, White House officials moved closer to unveiling a roughly $3 trillion infrastructure and jobs bill to advance President Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda, according to three people familiar with internal discussions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. On the heels of the coronavirus relief package, the next major legislative initiative grapples with sweeping domestic policy issues. Split into two parts, the bill is expected to focus on infrastructure and an array of Biden’s domestic priorities, including universal prekindergarten, national child care and free community college tuition.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement Monday that the administration had not decided on its next step for future economic proposals. Congressional Republicans are unlikely to get behind trillions in additional spending or the tax increases that the administration is considering to fund its domestic priorities.
But following public outcry and heightened attention on the issue at the start of the pandemic, Congress passed guaranteed sick- and family-leave provisions.
The legislation provided workers with two weeks of fully paid sick leave and an additional 12 weeks at two-thirds of pay to take care of a child whose school or child care was closed. But the policy was riddled with restrictions — it did not apply to workers at most medical providers, for example, or companies with fewer than 50 or more than 500 employees.
Still, the policy was by many accounts effective.
A study released in October by a team of public policy researchers found that it significantly reduced coronavirus cases; they found that states saw about 400 fewer confirmed cases per day by gaining access to the paid sick leave provisions, or about one fewer case per 1,300 workers made eligible for the leave.
The policy also turned out to be significantly less costly for the government than initially projected.
But the provisions were largely sloughed off from the stimulus measure passed in December after months of tedious partisan battles over the legislation. Republicans, including former senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, had expressed opposition to the sick-pay provision, with Alexander saying he did not agree with the way it was funded.
Of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s 34 member countries, the United States and South Korea were the two that lacked such a requirement as of 2018.