Tony Sandkamp still remembers why his woodworking business lost one of its best workers: The employee left his job to care for his mother, who was dying of cancer. The employee was someone Tony relied on, and Tony would have held his spot if he’d had the chance. But there was no way Tony could afford to pay the employee’s salary while he was away.
Versions of this story play out across the country every day. A devastating diagnosis is made even more disruptive by its spiraling consequences: A mother’s battle with cancer costs her son his job and hurts his employer’s business, compounding the tragedy and making life harder and less secure for working families.
It doesn’t have to be this way—and in most places, it isn’t. The United States is the only developed nation that doesn’t guarantee paid leave of any kind. Just one in five private-sector employees in America has paid family leave through their employer. For low-wage workers, it’s fewer than one in ten.
Half of men and women in the U.S. expect they’ll need time off from work to take care of a relative. But without paid leave, many will lose wages or find it difficult to stay in the workforce. All this time away from paid employment adds up to a staggering $22.5 billion in lost wages each year.
Although the caregiving crisis in this country predated COVID-19, the pandemic has underscored just how broken the U.S. caregiving system is—and how desperately paid leave is needed to speed the country’s economic recovery. When the pandemic hit, nearly one in four of the women who left the workforce did so because of caregiving responsibilities. One recent survey found that 38% of currently unemployed workers say they would return to work sooner if they had access to paid leave.
For all these reasons, it’s no surprise that the vast majority of Americans—including most Republicans, Democrats, and independents—support paid leave. The policy has been proven to promote healthier families, advance gender equality, and help businesses increase employee retention and productivity. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Labor estimated that if women in the U.S. participated in the workforce at the same rate as countries that have paid leave, like Canada and Germany, it would generate $500 billion of additional economic activity.
Because paid leave makes such good business sense, more and more companies are choosing to offer it of their own accord. Intel, for example, expanded its policy because when “employees and their families are supported, they perform at their best.” But guaranteeing paid family and medical leave for all workers nationwide is the only way we can create a system that helps businesses of all sizes support their employees.
The good news is that we’re closer to a national paid leave law than ever before. For the first time in history, a U.S. president is championing a comprehensive paid leave policy. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are speaking out about the need to guarantee U.S. workers paid time away from work. It’s the moment many families have been waiting for—and it’s here because activists and advocates have been laying the groundwork for years.
Pivotal Ventures is proud to support a diverse set of organizations who are part of this movement. Our partners—including Paid Leave for All, PL+US, MomsRising, the Bipartisan Policy Center, and the National Partnership for Women & Families—are working behind the scenes, on the frontlines, and at the highest levels of power to advance federal paid leave legislation. They’re lifting up the voices of workers whose families’ health and financial security are at stake. They’re educating and advising lawmakers. They’re mobilizing people to take action on the issue. They’re bringing new voices into the debate, and much more.
All this hard work is paying off. By the end of 2020, nine states and the District of Columbia had enacted laws guaranteeing paid family and medical leave. Last March, as part of the federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Republican and Democratic lawmakers passed emergency, temporary paid leave protections for tens of millions of private-sector employees—a historic step forward.
Now, it’s time to build on this momentum and make a permanent paid leave policy the law of the land—leaving no one behind and turbocharging our economic recovery.
Moments like this don’t come around very often, nor do they happen by accident. The fact that Congress is now seriously considering paid leave is a testament to decades of advocacy and activism—and to the inherent power of the argument that no one should have to choose between their family’s health and a paycheck.
Tony Sandkamp wanted to keep his best employee, and that employee wanted to keep his job, but they didn’t have the support they needed to make that possible. It’s time for that story to stop repeating itself.
Photo by MoMo Productions | Getty Images