The Economy of Black Women and Paid Leave

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Josephine Kalipeni

Executive Director, Family Values @ Work

It is a seemingly never-ending cycle. An illness pops up or gets worse in the midst of pursuing a career. A family member gets sick and is counting on a family member for care. A pregnancy turns into emergency labor and all of the plans for working while pregnant go out the window. A partner has a mental health episode and needs support. This is where the dominoes start falling. Because of caregiving, we are more likely to need time away from work, yet we are less likely to have access to paid time off. 

Instead, we often neglect our own needs and stretch ourselves thin to show up for others while working to make ends meet. By not taking time off, care is put off or stressfully pieced together as we soldier on and meet work and caregiving demands. If we do take time off, without pay, we leave ourselves and our families financially vulnerable. Most people cannot live without pay for an extended amount of time. This is compounded by the additional realities that we make less money over the course of our lives, have less opportunities for promotions, and that the cost of living is rising faster than our wages. This all contributes to poverty among Black women. In the end, we are left sicker and poorer. This is a particular modern-day irony among Black women, given our history of forced caregiving as enslaved peoples.

We recently celebrated the 30-year anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). FMLA, which passed in 1993, made sure workers wouldn’t lose their jobs if they became seriously ill or needed to take time away from work to care for a family member. Each year, 15 million workers use the FMLA for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. But many workers, disproportionately workers of color, are not eligible for FMLA because their company has under 50 employees or they haven’t worked for their employer for over a year. That leaves nearly half of workers without leave time or job protection. And FMLA does not offer paid leave. This legislation was certainly a step in the right direction, but it is only a first step. We need paid time off to care and we can’t wait another 30 years. The United States is the only developed nation and one of six in the entire world that does not have a national mandate for paid leave. 

The issue around paid leave is further complicated for immigrant families. I grow up seeing my mother be my father’s primary caregiver as his health declined with age. We always knew that my parents’ retirement in the USA was unaffordable, despite our best efforts to prepare. After retiring, my father went back to Malawi, our homeland. After a while, we received notice that my father was very ill and may not have long to live. Our brokenhearted conversations centered around who could afford to go to be with him in his final days. My parents were on the phone negotiating how long she needed to stay at work in order to maximize her accrued time off. My father died in the midst of these conversations, conversations that might not have taken place if everyone in my family had paid leave they could count on. 

Since there is no national mandate for paid leave, several individual states have stepped up to support working families. There are currently 11 states and the District of Columbia that have passed legislation to offer paid leave to workers. But the leave varies from state to state. In some states, you don’t qualify for paid leave if you need time off to care for an in-law. In those states, an in-law is not considered a family member. In other states, the percentage of pay during paid leave is too small for low wage workers. This effectively leaves low wage workers out of paid leave. This is why we need a federal law. Congress has to pass a paid leave law that sets a standard for states to build on.

Where you live in the US should not be the determining factor in whether or not you financially or physically survive an illness. Our vote is valuable and coveted. We have the power to unapologetically and uncompromisingly demand what our families and communities need. We must urge Congress to pass national paid leave legislation. 

There is no future in which our economy thrives if we choose to leave working families, especially Black women, behind. We demand passage of legislation that closes the gaps in the FMLA. We demand that the United States truly be a worker and family-supporting country by passing care centered policies that work for today’s families.