working mom
Childcare challenges force some working moms to put their careers on hold
02:58 - Source: CNNBusiness

Editor’s Note: Debra L. Ness is president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, an organization that works to improve the lives of women and families by achieving equality for all women. The views here are author’s own. Read more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

Rocio Flores was only a few days into her new job at a daycare center last March when Covid-19 caused businesses and schools to shut down. Soon enough, the center where she worked reopened. But, as she told NPR in September, her kids’ school did not. So, 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 with her 7- and 12-year-old at home. She decided she had to earn money, but every day, she said she went to work scared that something could happen to her kids while she couldn’t be there with them.

Debra L. Ness

This month, America marks the 28th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) – the law that guaranteed many workers the ability to take unpaid time off work to take care of themselves and loved ones. But people like Flores and millions more around the country require much more.

Well before the pandemic, workers often made immense, and oftentimes painful tradeoffs so they could earn a living and care for themselves and their families. That’s why organizations like the National Partnership for Women and Families fought for more than eight years to pass the FMLA nearly three decades ago. The FMLA, which provides 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for some workers, recognized these impossible tradeoffs and at least made sure employers couldn’t fire someone for taking care of a new baby, a family member or themselves.

Its passage was a milestone. But even in 1993, we knew it was insufficient. For workers to take unpaid leave, they would have to use up their personal savings or rely on public assistance. So, workers were still calculating difficult tradeoffs. For the past 28 years, millions of workers, and in particular women, have lived and worked under this unstable situation.

Think about the retail worker who needs surgery. The retail industry has historically been among the least likely to provide paid leave. Or consider the pregnant worker in the restaurant industry. The food service industry is another sector that often doesn’t offer paid leave. So, while she wants to bond with her new child at home, she knows she’ll need to hurry back to work to earn a paycheck. For far too long, paid leave has been a luxury, but it shouldn’t be.

Then, Covid-19 hit. The tenuous structure under which workers pieced together their job,raising a family and taking care of themselves and loved ones collapsed.

The pandemic has meant that many women, like Flores, have continued working, without the support of childcare. Other women have dropped out of the workforce to make it work.

And for women of color, the virus has had a disproportionately detrimental effect. Women of color are more likely to be essential workers. These workers have kept our country moving as front-line health care workers, caregivers, grocery store checkout clerks, food service workers and more. But, in part because of workplace conditions at some of these essential jobs, Black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American women are far more likely to contract the virus and die at higher rates, compared with White women. Black and Latinx women are the least likely group of workers to have employer-provided benefits like paid leave.

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 jumpstarted incredible momentum for paid family and medical leave, building off the successes in nine states and in Washington, DC, where paid family and medical leave has been adopted in recent years. Our country began to realize that workers shouldn’t sacrifice their health and the well-being of their family for a paycheck – not during Covid, not ever.

So, 28 years on and in the midst of this ongoing crisis, I am more confident than ever that a national paid leave policy will happen. State and local action has exploded. In 2020, in Colorado, for example, voters, through a ballot initiative, enacted paid family and medical leave of up to 12 weeks for all workers. And cities like Philadelphia passed a law to give emergency paid leave related to the pandemic, including some gig workers in the effort.

At the national level, Democrats and Republicans alike overwhelmingly voted for the Family First Coronavirus Response Act last March that expanded emergency paid leave for child care and gave two weeks of job-protected paid sick days to 87 million workers.

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

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

    In the coming months, widespread vaccinations will help the nation contain the virus and our economy will begin to recover. But we can’t go back to the status quo of unpaid leave. Workers and families in America deserve better.