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The Importance of Care, Especially During COVID, and Where to Go from Here

Disclaimer: Posts are solely the views of the author and do not represent the views of Brandeis University or The Institute on Assets and Social Policy.

Brandeis University decided in March 2020 to transition from in-person to online classes and activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time of writing, nine months have passed since this decision. As the school continues to adjust to the challenges of operating during a pandemic, beyond the walls of the university, the weight of the pandemic seems to feel just as heavy for many people as when it first began in early 2020, if not more so now.

“Hundreds of thousands of women left the workforce this year to take care of their families.”

For many parents, the pandemic has brought added challenges. While schools traditionally have been responsible for children’s full education and human development during the workdays, state mandates halting in-person learning due to COVID-19 have shifted those responsibilities to parents. As a result, hundreds of thousands of women have left the workforce this year to take care of their families, with Latinas dropping out of the labor market at a higher rate overall. The number of Latinas in the labor force dropped by 2.7% between August and September 2020, compared with a drop of 1.2% among all women. 

The Importance of Care Work and Paid Family Leave, Especially During the Pandemic

Care work remains undervalued by U.S. society.

The pandemic has reinforced the importance and value of care work. Yet, as more women choose families over their work, care work remains undervalued by U.S society. Occupations that involve care work, such as childcare workers and home healthcare aides, remain underpaid despite playing a foundational role in the U.S. economy. Further, the United States is one of the only countries in the world with no national paid family leave policy. Currently, the only national leave policy in the country is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which provides 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave to approximately 60 percent of the workforce. The remaining 40 percent – 66 million workers – cannot access FMLA.

FMLA’s policy shortcomings, coupled with newfound challenges due to the pandemic, highlight the need for the U.S. to enact paid family leave. In truth, the challenges the pandemic has presented to parents are unlikely to be fully addressed by states passing paid family leave. However, having such a policy in place could help immensely in lessening the burdens people experience. Paid family leave allows individuals to take time off from work and still provide for their family without feeling completely stretched. Ten states are already implementing or will implement their own version of paid family leave in 2021. These state-wide policies cover almost all workers, range in their wage replacement rate from 60 percent to 100 percent, and provide up to 12 weeks of paid time off for workers to take care of family members.

Massachusetts’ Paid Family Leave Policy

Massachusetts is among the 10 states with a paid family and medical leave policy. The state-wide policy—both family and medical leave—begins in January 2021, covering full-time, part-time, and seasonal workers. The policy extends its benefits to certain unemployed, self-employed, and contract workers as well. For brevity, this post will focus on the paid family leave portion of the policy.

Overall, Massachusetts’ paid family leave policy is among the most progressive in the nation. Eligible workers receive 12 weeks of paid leave time to 1) bond with a child after birth or adoption, 2) care for an ill family member, or 3) care for a family member or manage family affairs related to being on active duty in the armed forces. Further, the policy offers a progressive wage replacement rate. Lower-income earners receive 80 percent of their weekly income when they are on paid leave, the highest compensation rate the state currently offers under its paid family leave policy. The higher the income a worker makes, the lower the compensation rate they receive (see Image 1). This compensation structure ensures lower-income workers receive more financial support when they are caring for their families.

Image 1. Sample Approximate Deduction and Benefit Amounts for Workers at Various Incomes

Source: Massachusetts State Government, 2019

Future Iterations of Paid Family Leave Policies

More progressive provisions must be incorporated to ensure different types of care work are recognized and compensated.

Despite the progress individual states are making, the U.S. still has a long way to go. As more states—and eventually the country—considers implementing paid family leave, more progressive provisions must be incorporated to ensure different types of care work are recognized and compensated. These provisions might include:

  • Guaranteeing a 100 percent wage replacement rate. This lessens the mental and emotional burden individuals might feel in trying to maintain their livelihood while taking care of a family member. 

  • Lowering the income eligibility threshold. All current paid family leave policies include a minimum income threshold that individuals must earn before they take paid leave. A lower minimum income threshold, such as Oregon’s $1,000 income threshold, decreases the barriers lower-income earning workers face before they can access paid family leave.

  • Offering as much paid leave time as possible and expanding the definition of when workers can take paid leave to care for family. Twelve weeks of paid leave is the maximum workers can currently take in certain states. This is because the Department of Labor recently mandated that all state paid leave policies must act concurrently with FMLA. Any paid leave time exceeding 12 weeks risks not being covered under FMLA’s job protection guarantee. This mandate reinforces the need to eventually have an expansive national paid leave policy that recognizes the different types of care work individuals do and offers enough paid leave time for people to use.

As the ten states implement their paid family leave policies and the United States has more evidence of the benefits of paid family leave, advocates and state and federal lawmakers will have more political opportunities to enact such policies at the state and national levels. As future iterations of paid family leave policies build on the progressivity of current laws, I am hopeful that such progress can transform the acts of care individuals do into a more sustainable and inclusive infrastructure.

By Yuqi Wang, MPP/MBA Candidate