Americans are famous for working hard. Some-times, though, life needs to take priority over work, and the U.S. is notoriously lacking in policies that support employees who need to take time off when it does.
We are the only developed country in the world that doesn’t provide paid leave for new parents, but childbirth is just one of many reasons Americans might need to take leave. More than 25 million American workers care for an aging friend or relative. Our own health isn’t always perfect either, no matter what age we are. But if fulfilling our obligations to ourselves and our loved ones requires an extended absence from work, we’re often on our own.
We save up vacation days to stay home with a new baby. We lean on friends and neighbors to check in on ailing family members. We plead with employers for understanding when we get sick. But when these makeshift solutions don’t work, people are sometimes forced to quit their jobs, use up their savings and go into debt.
Fortunately, business and government leaders are finally starting to pay attention to this problem. More employers are choosing to provide paid parental leave—increasingly for mothers and fathers. Some businesses, like Discovery Communications, are also starting to offer paid leave to employees caring for family members. These companies are finding that giving employees these benefits makes them more attractive places to work and can help the bottom line. For example, since Accenture improved its parental-leave policy last year, the number of mothers who come back to work has gone up by 30%.
This year both presidential candidates have talked about their support for paid leave. There are some differences in the details of their proposals, and I encourage you to read up on them. My own view is that we need a comprehensive policy for men and women that covers the range of scenarios that actually apply in modern life: a sick relative, a new baby or an individual’s own illness. No matter what happens, though, I’m thankful that we’re finally at the point where the question is not “Should we give Americans the ability to care for themselves and their families?” but rather “How are we going to do it?”
Gates is a co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation