This an emergency for American households that Congress may truly repair |

Rocio Flores was only a few days in her new job in a daycare center in March last year when Covid-19 resulted in companies and schools closing. Soon the center where she worked reopened. But, as she told NPR in September, her children’s school didn’t. Like so many working parents during the pandemic, Flores had to decide whether to earn a paycheck to support her family or quit her job so she could be home with her 7- and 12-year-olds. She decided she needed to make money, but she said she went to work every day and was afraid that something might happen to her children while she couldn’t be with them.

This month America marks the 28th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) – the law that guarantees many workers the opportunity to take unpaid time off to care for themselves and their loved ones. But people like Flores and millions more across the country need a lot more.

Long before the pandemic, workers made often immense and often painful compromises so that they could earn a living and provide for themselves and their families. This is why organizations like the National Partnership for Women and Families fought for more than eight years to get the FMLA passed nearly three decades ago. The FMLA, which gives some workers 12 weeks of unpaid, sheltered leave, recognized these impossible compromises and at least made sure employers couldn’t fire anyone who was looking after a new baby, family member, or themselves.

His passage was a milestone. But even in 1993 we knew that it wasn’t enough. In order for workers to take unpaid leave, they would have to use up their personal savings or rely on public support. So the workers were still calculating difficult compromises. Over the past 28 years, millions of workers, and women in particular, have lived and worked in this unstable situation.

Think about the retailer that needs to be operated. Retail has been one of the least paid vacation companies in the past. Or consider the pregnant worker in the restaurant business. Gastronomy is another sector that often does not offer paid holidays. While looking to bond with her new child at home, she knows she has to rush to work to earn a paycheck. Paid vacation has been a luxury for far too long, but it shouldn’t be.

Then hit Covid-19. The weak structure under which workers put their jobs together, raised families, and cared for themselves and their loved ones collapsed.

The pandemic has resulted in many women like Flores continuing to work without childcare support. Other women dropped out of the workforce to make it work.

And the virus has had a disproportionately disadvantageous effect on women of color. Skin color women are more likely to be important workers. These workers have kept our country moving as healthcare workers, caregivers, grocery store cashiers, food service workers, and more. In part because of the working conditions in some of these important jobs, Black, Spanish, Asian, and Native American women are far more likely to contract the virus and die than white women. Black and Latin American women are the least likely to experience benefits from employers, such as paid vacation.

There aren’t many silver linings in a pandemic that has caused massive death, suffering, economic hardship, and more. But this unacceptable status quo has created incredible momentum for paid family and sick leave, building success in nine states and Washington, DC, where paid family and sick leave has been introduced in recent years. Our country began to understand that workers shouldn’t sacrifice their health and family welfare for a paycheck – not during Covid, never.

28 years later, in the midst of this ongoing crisis, I am more confident than ever that a national policy on paid leave will take place. State and local actions have exploded. In Colorado, for example, in 2020, as part of an election initiative, voters decided to give all employees up to 12 weeks of paid family and sick leave. And cities like Philadelphia have passed legislation granting emergency paid vacations related to the pandemic, including some gig workers.

Nationally, Democrats and Republicans overwhelmingly voted in March last year for the Family First Coronavirus Response Act, which expanded emergency paid childcare leave and granted 87 million workers two weeks of sheltered paid sick leave.

When former President Bill Clinton signed the FMLA in 1993, he wrote the “W” in his name and then turned to the head of the National Partnership for Women and Families to hand over the pen. It was a win, but still just a step in the right direction. Subsequent steps have been hard-won since then. But the dynamic is so clearly on our side.

Congress should immediately follow President Joe Biden’s lead, building on last year’s emergency provisions to allow workers to take time off to care for themselves or a family member as the pandemic continues to spread. Then we need Congress to finally pass a national directive on paid family and sick leave.

In the coming months, widespread vaccination will help the nation contain the virus and our economy will gradually recover. But we cannot go back to the status quo of unpaid leave. American workers and families deserve better.

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