Paid family leave would advance gender equality – but the details matter

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After his near-death experience, paid family leave is back on the federal agenda. Hopefully this time it stays for good. In the wake of a crushing defeat in the elections last Tuesday, the Speaker of the House Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOvernight Energy & Environment – Presented by ExxonMobil – Kerry announces climate statement with China Marine veteran challenging Gottheimer in New Jersey. (D-California) resurrected the proposed paid family leave by adding it back to Biden’s budget bill, slated for a vote on Nov. 15.

National paid leave is a real step forward in gender equality, especially for working women of color like me. Although it has its limitations, national paid family leave would resolve gender pay gaps that potentially occur at two key points in a person’s life: maternity and caregiving.

Many men and women do each of these things with grace. And it’s natural to expect that many of us will experience pregnancy or care at some point in our lives, or we may already know someone who is.

Research suggests that racial and gender discrimination, workplace harassment, and long work interruptions due to family caregiving have all contributed to a gender pay gap that women still feel today.

The federal paid leave proposal does not solve all of these problems, but it does significantly reduce them.

When women do not have paid leave after having a baby, nearly 30 percent of them leave the labor market in the first year. However, in states that have implemented paid leave, women are less likely to quit their job in the first year and more likely to see their income increase.

Paid family leave also helps fathers. Having men at home gives them an important time to bond with their child, equalizes household chores, and allows women to continue to thrive in the workforce.

And then there is the care. Almost 50 million unpaid caregivers live in the United States, and most of them are women.

As a doctor working in the hospital, I frequently encounter caregivers who are essential in shaping a patient’s post-hospital support system. However, only 13 percent of workers in the United States have access to employer-paid family leave.

Paid time off would help prevent caregivers from choosing between caring for a loved one and maintaining job security. But it is imperfect. The provision only provides for four weeks of paid leave, which may not be long enough for caregivers to reap the benefits. It also does not appear to offer job protections, which could discourage low-income people or people of color who would otherwise qualify for the program.

Despite the drawbacks, the provisions are a big improvement over proposals from the previous administration, which would require workers to trade paid leave for delayed social security benefits. This would have had a negative impact on low- and middle-wage earners who may not have the flexibility to delay retirement.

The next few days will be controversial. We are awaiting a new budget estimate and a vote in the Senate. If passed, paid leave would begin to level the playing field for women throughout their careers. Let’s reverse the false choice between family life and financial stability and begin to recognize the importance of both.

Federal paid time off represents a new era for me as a doctor and a woman of color. And his amazing survival only reinforces the importance of getting past him now.

Courtney Lee is an associate member of the Leonard Davis Institute for Health Economics and clinical researcher in the Division of General Internal Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.


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