image: Odua Images/Shutterstock

The COVID-19 pandemic blurred the boundaries between work and home life, forcing private struggles into public discourse and view. Families adapted to an entirely new system of working and caring while navigating rigid and unsupportive work environments. Suddenly, Better Life Lab’s policy area—studying systemic racism and sexism and its effects on health and wellbeing, and the ability of people to combine care and work—moved from being relegated to a “niche women’s issue” to the center of attention. Paid family and medical leave, for new parents as well as people caring for ill family members or themselves, became an integral part of emergency response in the face of a global public health and economic crisis.

Without a way to take time off to care for themselves and family members (and still pay the bills on time) families in already tough financial situations found themselves making impossible sacrifices. More and more people began speaking up about their struggles and having tough conversations about what they would or could do if someone they cared for needed them in an emergency. As more people realized that these work-care problems affect everyone, yet families are largely expected to figure out solutions alone, the pandemic set into motion a long-brewing cultural shift.

Through the Better Life Lab’s storytelling and journalism, we’ve had the opportunity to bring together people from across the country to share their experiences and push for federal systems change. At the start of the pandemic, our Crisis Conversations invited essential workers, caregivers, advocates, and researchers to discuss how the pandemic exacerbated inequity, upended care and work, and the critical role paid family and medical leave—or the absence of it—plays in their lives. From this we developed a set of policy recommendations that would have a huge positive impact on all workers, but that would particularly benefit low-income workers and Black, Indigenous, and women of color. This group, especially hard-hit by the pandemic, also tends to be excluded from many of the work-family supports that U.S. residents rely on corporations to voluntarily offer.

Although in our interviews many workers cited the need for paid time off, the United States still lags far behind other countries in passing permanent federal policies, whether for short-term sick days or longer-term family and medical leave. Kelly Newman, an attorney and primary earner for her family of six, shared with us that while the Families First Coronavirus Response Act emergency paid leave provisions did not cover the paid parental leave she needed to recover from childbirth and care and bond with her newborn, she was lucky that the emergency caregiving leave did help her indirectly.

The emergency caregiving provision gave paid leave to parents whose children’s schools and childcare centers were closed, and because Kelly’s older children were out of school and learning at home, she qualified and was able to care for her newborn as well. Still, she empathized with caregivers excluded from the provision, “I feel this excruciating sense of loss for my sisters who don’t get to participate in this program...when we live in a nation that has the means to provide for them.” Financial constraints compel individuals to place the demands of their paid work above their own family’s health and care needs. In such a wealthy country, failing to support workers at home compromises individual and public health and costs the U.S. billions—influenza’s estimated cost to the economy is 11.2 billion in a typical year—and those costs will dramatically increase without paid sick leave policies in a pandemic.

By opening up the opportunity for surprising or potentially contradicting opinions and diverse stories, we expand our cultural understanding of how policy can improve equity. For example, we used this inclusive approach in looking at men’s attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs toward caregiving, as well as incentives and barriers to them providing care. Remarkably, we found that traditional notions of masculinity were the least cited reason for why men don’t take paid leave. Rather it was financial constraints that determined whether or not men could take time off work to provide care. We learned men want to provide care, share it equally with women, and value caregivers, and across the political spectrum people support policies like paid family and medical leave, but don’t often have access.

Taking time to understand each other’s struggles on a personal level won’t automatically create the federal change families need now, but it’s an imperative first step toward developing empathy and understanding for caregivers and taking action. The original emergency caregiving leave provision expired in December 2020, and the Biden administration seeks to expand and extend emergency paid leave, potentially covering up to 106 million additional workers in the short term, and is open to longer-term paid leave in the future as well. These legislative priorities were informed by advocates and workers fighting not only for their own families but for the collective struggles worsened by our current health crisis.

Only through listening to individual stories from a diverse range of those balancing work and care can we begin to build a new cultural understanding of the importance of paid leave. And, only when lawmakers listen to those voices and understand the real-life effects that public policy has on people’s lives can we catalyze change. Researchers, advocates, and legislators must bring those personal stories into their work, engaging with people authentically to find solutions that center their experiences now, to meet the current emergency and prepare for the next inevitable crisis.

image: Odua Images/Shutterstock