The coronavirus pandemic has upended our economy in ways that we couldn’t have imagined even a few months ago. Nearly 40 million Americans are out of work. And while many white-collar workers continue to do their jobs from home or take time off to deal with the fallout from this pandemic, those lower down on the socioeconomic ladder are often still needed at work. They might not be doctors or nurses, but they are essential on the front lines nonetheless: nursing assistants, grocery store clerks, delivery drivers, and restaurant workers doing carryout and delivery.
They also happen to be the least likely to receive any paid sick leave or paid time off to care for their loved ones. Their circumstances have amplified the need for a paid leave policy in the U.S., both in response to the crisis and beyond. Congress acted by providing federally funded leave from work to employees of small businesses to care for family members or one’s own medical issues in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Now, a natural question is: Where does this leave us, and how does the current crisis affect future policy discussions over federal paid leave policy?
As various states reopen their economy in stages, many people find themselves expected to return to work while schools and childcare providers remain closed. The ongoing pandemic and uncertainty about childcare options in the fall mean that we may need emergency paid leave provisions for the foreseeable future. After all, it is far better to protect the connection between employers and employees by providing paid leave than people leaving the workforce entirely to deal with the short-term caregiving needs that resulted from this pandemic.
That said, policymakers should take caution in basing a permanent federal paid leave policy on this emergency experience. The environment we are in is unique, and there is a clear and meaningful distinction between emergency measures and policies necessary during usual times. Before making any permanent changes, policymakers should step back and reassess what we know about paid leave policies and what we have yet to learn.