Like millions of working parents navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, we both spent much of last year balancing remote schooling, working and caregiving. We relied, like so many, on the millions of essential service-sector workers who remained on the front lines, allowing the rest of us to socially distance and shelter in place.
But when these essential workers need to care for themselves and their families, American policymakers and businesses failed them. As researchers who study work-life conflicts and the service sector we knew we had to investigate the scope of this problem. So, in fall 2020, we asked 8,500 service-sector workers employed in grocery, delivery, food service and retail at 125 of the largest firms in the country about their need for family or medical leave. Their answers demonstrate the sheer scale of this caregiving crisis. One in eight workers experienced a serious medical problem themselves. Thirteen percent of workers reported they had needed to care for someone else with a serious medical condition. And 4% of workers told us they welcomed a new child in the past year. Yet two-thirds of these workers, and nearly 1 in 5 front-line service-sector workers, told us they couldn't take the leave they needed — either because they couldn't take any leave at all or because they had to return to work sooner than they wanted to. This was even more common among women and workers of color. Why are workers taking less leave than they need in the midst of a global pandemic? The simplest answer is that they just can't afford the time off, even when their own health or that of their families demands it. As one Florida mother working in casual dining explains, "We don't make money if we don't work. To survive we must work sick!" Among workers who faced medical or caregiving needs but couldn't take time off, the degree of financial insecurity is staggering. Ninety percent reported that making ends meet month to month was difficult. A third had gone hungry because they couldn't afford to eat. And half didn't know how they'd come up with $400 in the event of an emergency. What are the other reasons they aren't taking the time off they need? A third of these workers said it was because they feared getting fired. And 1 in 4 said that they felt pressured by their employer to return to work. A big box retail worker in Illinois laid it out plainly: "We are threatened to lose our job if we take leave." Helping workers balance their work-life responsibilities without fearing for their jobs is one of the most meaningful things we can do to help our country — and our economy — recover from the current crisis. Along with other investments in our care infrastructure, this could also set our economy on a path toward sustainable, broadly shared economic growth. Many in Congress, including Oregon's own Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, already support a national paid family and medical leave program. That's great news for families across the country, but only if Congress follows through. For too long, American workers have had to fend for themselves when caregiving challenges arise. It's time for Congress to lend a hand. It's time for paid leave. Julia Goodman is an assistant professor at the Oregon Health & Science University and Portland State University School of Public Health. Daniel Schneider is a professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.
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