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Sharing Personal Stories Won’t Move the Needle on Paid Family Leave. Talking About Money Might

8 minute read

Goldstein is Care Reporting Fellow for the Better Life Lab at New America. Her report, A Playbook to Transform How America Cares, is out October 24. She’s also a speaker and journalist who writes on mothers, caregivers, and gender equity and the creator of The Double Shift newsletter, podcast, and community.

As Omicron spreads across the nation, some schools are going virtual and an unprecedented number of people are testing positive and needing to take time at home to recover or care for loved ones. As a mother to three young children, and a journalist who’s been documenting the impact of the pandemic on moms, this all feels like a grim Groundhog Day. It’s hard to accept that we are all being forced to do all of this, again, without a national paid family leave program. This surge will eventually pass, but the ongoing catastrophe of a lack of paid leave isn’t budging. That is why it’s time to start thinking and talking about paid leave differently.

Throughout 2021, advocacy groups engaged in intense lobbying campaigns to rally support for the Biden Administration’s American Families Plan. The plan, among other things, would have put in place a national paid family and medical leave program. The amount of time included in potential legislation oscillated between 12, 4 and 0 weeks. This legislation is now stalled, but one strategy, employed by both organizations and individuals, to build support for the policy was to put a human face on the lived reality of this national disgrace of no paid family leave in our wealthy, industrialized nation.

Social media and news outlets were flooded with heartbreaking stories (many from Senator Joe Manchin’s West Virginia constituents) about the need for paid family leave – a mom who left her premature baby in the NICU because she couldn’t afford to miss work, a woman struggling to make ends meet while caring for a spouse with a fatal illness, a mom who returned to work barely able to walk after giving birth and a mom who might have died if not for paid leave. This strategy hasn’t worked. Even with 73% of the country supporting federal funding for paid family and medical leave, Congress hasn’t passed anything.

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It’s easy to blame this all on Manchin and his failure to support the American Families Plan, but the issue extends far beyond him. I believe it’s time to accept that our political system doesn’t operate based on a shared sense of humanity. The fact that we still don’t have national paid leave in the U.S. is certainly not the only proof of this reality, but it is a prime example. If there were enough bipartisan political pressure from people with considerable power, like the business community, I believe we’d be able to get this done.

I’m someone who’s deeply committed to the idea that stories can change people’s minds, but on this issue I’m willing to admit defeat. Women’s stories don’t matter to enough people with power. My story of caring for newborn twins and a preschooler with no paid leave through a global pandemic doesn’t matter. Your unique suffering doesn’t either. It sounds harsh, but if you’ve lived as a mother or a primary caregiver for the young, sick or elderly for the last two years in America, this probably isn’t news to you. Many people with power do not care about us.

So I’m going to suggest something radical. Let’s stop sharing the human stories about why paid leave is “the right thing to do” or making the case that it would be an important social-safety-net expansion and let’s start talking about money. American capitalism doesn’t have a heart, so let’s start speaking loudly, and perhaps exclusively, in the language of the bottom line.

To that end, I believe we’re lobbying the wrong people. Perhaps instead of “call your Senator,” the slogan should be “call your CEO.” If the business community starts to pressure our elected officials because they see a profit incentive during these unpredictable economic times, then we might see some movement on this issue. Instead of protesting at the Capitol, protest in front of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the largest business interest group. They’ve lobbied hard against the Democrats’ plan for climate and social spending out of objections to corporate tax increases. Last summer, however, they conceded that they could support federal paid leave if it simplified compliance with different state laws.

Let’s take advantage of this changing position. If you work for a business that’s a member, start making noise about how the Chamber of Commerce needs to do more to promote federal paid leave in order to represent your company’s business needs. If you work for a company that already offers employees a robust paid leave policy, get them to join other influential companies and commit to coming out publicly with the message that federal paid leave will be a boon to business and help their bottom lines during these turbulent times.

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The strong economic case for paid leave existed before the pandemic, but perhaps our current economic crises can inspire a new sense of urgency from business leaders. Take your pick of statistics you think would best make the case to your company to improve its leave policy and be a voice to advocate for change at the federal level. Seventeen Nobel prize winners in economics have concurred that programs like national paid family leave will help curb long-term inflation trends. A 2017 Ernst & Young survey found that more than 90% of companies with paid leave policies said their policy had a positive or neutral impact on profitability, productivity and morale, which could be an antidote to the great resignation that’s continuing unabated in 2022. If we could reach gender parity in the paid workforce by 2025, it would add a $4.3 trillion to our GDP, according to a 2016 McKinsey report.

Worker shortages are dire across many industries, but ones like hospitality and health care that don’t typically offer robust employer-provided benefits like paid sick time and family leave are especially hobbled. A national paid family leave program would be a boon to struggling sectors of the economy by making it easier for workers to take needed time off without quitting and without employers shouldering more costs for time off, training and replacement. Instead of calling your congressperson, what about organizing small-business owners in your community to take up the cause that paid leave will help them be more competitive? After all, a 2016 Deloitte survey found that 77% of workers said paid leave offerings had some impact on their decision about where to work, and a 2012 analysis from the Center for American Progress found that replacing an employee can cost an employer about one-fifth of that worker’s annual salary. Workers have a perhaps once-in-a-generation opportunity for leverage. If stats and white papers don’t work, coordinated strikes and sickouts could be more effective than ever in persuading CEOs to provide more comprehensive employer programs and commit to lobbying for federal legislation.

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With the daycare industry in a general state of free fall and consistent in-person school no longer the given that it once was, a continued lack of paid leave could drive and keep even more parents, and disproportionately mothers, out of the workforce. National paid family leave is an investment that would provide a meaningful solution to many of the thorny, interlocking economic crises. Want to keep this unfettered capitalist train running at full speed? Support paid leave! We don’t even have to acknowledge the positive human impact — let’s just call it the Support America’s Economy Act, or American Workforce Revitalization Act, or the Capitalism and Prosperity Act. Call it an employer investment or a business subsidy. Call it whatever you want, because it’s not happening out of the goodness of anyone’s heart, especially when plenty of people erroneously think this is just a “women’s issue.”

So let’s get the CEOs lobbying and let the money do the talking. Whatever it takes. We can even let those business bigwigs think it was all their idea.

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