All week I’ve seen friends and colleagues post social media content introducing their work-from-home “coworkers” to the world — their kids who partake in fun art projects, but are mostly interrupting video conference calls. I myself have a 5 month old “coworker” — she sleeps on the job quite a bit!
Working from home and social distancing are examples of our collective public health effort to protect each other and prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Taking these measures enhances our community’s health and wellbeing — yet this is not an option for many.
Low-wage workers — disproportionately people of color and immigrants — are performing essential work like delivering packages and stocking grocery stores.
My dad is part of this category of essential workers. During his 12 hour long shifts, he is making sugar which is necessary for the production of medicine. Meanwhile I’m lucky to be sitting at home, comfortable in my pajamas, with a cup of coffee and laptop at hand.
Health and financial stakes are especially high for low-wage workers at this time. They can’t afford to stay home without paid sick leave and they’re at greater risk of exposure to the virus and risk inadvertently bringing the virus home to their loved ones.
California’s Employment Development Department (EDD) recently extended the state’s Paid Family Leave (PFL) policy to workers who need to stop working in order to care for a family member who is sick or quarantined due to COVID-19. PFL is entirely taxpayer funded and provides working Californians 60% or 70% of their usual wages for up to 6 weeks to take care of a seriously ill family member.
We know from our research with California Work & Family Coalition last year that this isn’t enough. While the expansion is clearly responsive to the pandemic, it neglects to ensure that all Californians will have equitable access to tend to their loved ones during this trying time. Our survey of 700+ working family caregivers across California revealed that higher income earners:
- Were more likely to know about PFL as a resource
- Were able to work from home and have schedule flexibility
- Had paid time off, health benefits, and retirement plans through their employer
We can ensure that everyone can access paid family leave
Choosing between economic stability and supporting a loved ones’ health and recovery is not a decision anyone should be making — during a public health emergency or on any given day. We need to, more than ever, advocate for permanent economic policies that are equitable for all workers all the time. Without significant improvements to our economic security policies, we could expect to see widening economic inequities and compromised health outcomes for vulnerable populations. Here are 4 recommendations to improve paid family leave for all workers:
1. Dedicate resources to outreach and education
Advocates point out that low-income and immigrant communities often don’t receive word of programs like PFL in communication approaches that are culturally accessible to them. In partnership with community organizations, the EDD can improve awareness through targeted education efforts in hard-to-reach communities.
2. Ensure job protection
Caregivers say they would be more likely to use PFL if it provided job protection. Workers, especially those who are low-income and from immigrant communities, are reluctant to use PFL without being sure they can return to work without retaliation from their employer.
3. Ensure 100% wage replacement for low-wage workers
Advocates share that 60% or 70% of minimum wage provides little incentive for low-wage workers to use PFL. Workers who make a minimum or low wages would benefit from full wage replacement.
4. Streamline the application process
Another facet to PFL is the challenging application process, especially when attempting to speak to an EDD staff person over the phone. Government programs that are resource-intensive are often especially taxing for vulnerable populations. The EDD can improve the user experience, especially now with an expected rise in applications.
Other economic security policies like minimum wage, unemployment insurance, medical leave, and paid sick days also require our attention. The California Work & Family Coalition is advocating for improvements to these policies in California right now.
Nationally, we are behind in establishing economic securities for working people in the US.
The United States doesn’t have a national paid family leave policy or guaranteed paid sick days and many states don’t even have the paid leave policies that we have here in California.
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which passed last week, is a step in the right direction. It is the first ever federal paid leave policy for private sector workers and would provide limited emergency paid leave.
But the Families First Coronavirus Response Act doesn’t go far enough — it excludes millions of workers, and it sunsets at the end of the year.
There are multiple policies being proposed now, including the PAID Leave Act, to fill these gaps and to make paid leave guaranteed for ALL workers permanently.
The inequities in our access to time off are much more visible and expansive during this global pandemic, giving us an opportunity to rethink our economic security systems, how we think about caregiving, and how we can do better for all workers.
Read our response to the crisis, Equity is the Remedy: Now and Beyond COVID19 to learn more.
What actions can you take?
Your organization can sign on to this letter to support the PAID Leave Act, introduced by Senators Murray and Gillibrand and Congresswoman DeLauro.
To learn more about our evaluation of California PFL with the California Work & Family Coalition, read the full research report, Understanding Working & Caregiving of California Paid Family Leave.
Sukhdip Purewal Boparai is a Senior Research Associate at Human Impact Partners. Sukh conducts and elevates rigorous research to advance health equity, with a commitment to true community collaboration.