By MARYALICE PARKS, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) — In addition to roads and bridges, President Joe Biden has signaled a willingness to revamp what advocates refer to as the nation’s “care infrastructure,” benefits and workplace requirements such as paid family and sick leave that support American families and the economy in a different way.
Hoping to seize on a moment when Washington is engaged in ideas around economic recovery and after a hard year for employers and families, more than 200 businesses sent a letter to congressional leaders urging action on a federal paid family leave program in any future infrastructure and recovery legislation.
The list of signatories included several household brands across various sectors of the economy from technology to retail, such as Etsy, Pinterest, Patagonia, Levi Strauss & Co., Rothy’s, ThirdLove, Bad Robot and more.
“The pandemic has exposed an acute emergency on top of an ongoing, chronic crisis,” the letter reads. “Lack of a national paid leave policy makes all of us more vulnerable during this pandemic and for future public health emergencies, while putting the financial stability of businesses on the line.”
The letter cites a study from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics that shows that although most American workers had paid sick leave last year, only 21% had access to any paid family or maternity leave through their employers.
“Paid leave is also a key element of addressing racial, class, and gender inequalities in the United States. With an equal paid leave policy in place, we can help stem the historic tide of women leaving the workforce and ensure that low-wage earners and people of color have the time they need to care for themselves and their families,” the letter continues.
Nationwide, polling has shown a large majority of Americans support the idea of paid family leave. Democrats on Capitol Hill have, over the years, proposed different pieces of legislation, including possible payrolls taxes for employers to establish an insurance-style federal program of leave for all workers.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., last month introduced the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, to create a permanent, national paid family and medical leave program.
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, the federal government offered employers money for an emergency paid leave program. The organizers of the letter from businesses told ABC News that their primary objective is that any new federal program be comprehensive and lasting.
“This isn’t a perk any more, paid leave is something everyone needs and therefore should be a federal program,” Annie Sartor, senior director of business partnerships at Paid Family Leave for the US (PL+US), which organized the letter, told ABC News.
Sartor said when she first started this work “it was a radical notion that someone who worked behind the cash register or who makes your coffee would have access to paid family and medical leave. It was truly an elite benefit.”
Now, she argued, not only is there a potentially more sympathetic ear in the White House, but the tide has changed in the business communities as more employees have demanded such benefits.
With unemployment high, the idea still likely faces a steep road ahead on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers will likely be leery about anything that could face opposition from employers or job creators. Proponents argue that a collective federal program could save some businesses money in the long run, if the federal government is pitching in.
Heidi Zak, co-founder of a popular new bra company ThirdLove, told ABC that as a company with a heavily female workforce and clientele, the issue has long been important to her but that the pandemic and the burden it placed on families and working mothers put the issue in stark relief.
“An investment in this is an investment in women and the future of our economy,” she said. “Having some baseline for benefits in the U.S. is really important.”
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