Addressing racial inequality in paid leave policy

It is time the an equitable paid leave policy meets the triple A standard: accessible, affordable, and adequate.


While efforts to secure paid leave benefits are stalled at the federal level, states and cities are moving forward. In the latest victory, the District of Columbia has granted hundreds of thousands of private-sector workers 12 weeks of paid time off, up from a maximum of eight weeks.

Across the country, nine states have paid leave policies on the books.

As in other jurisdictions, the D.C. paid leave law was a victory over intense lobbying from businesses that objected to the increased costs. Under the initial plan adopted in 2020, employers owed a tax of 0.26 percent of an employee’s salary to fund the paid leave program. Thanks to a D.C. budget surplus, that rate has just been trimmed to 0.62 percent, and advocates emphasize that the benefits program is a win-win for workers and their employers.

“We’ve seen during the pandemic with the Great Resignation, workplaces that are family-friendly, flexible, and offer paid leave are more likely to retain workers because workers feel like those employers are caring for them and their needs,” said Elissa Silverman, D.C. Council member at large, during “US Care Infrastructure: From Promise to Reality,” a recent conference by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, the American University Program on Gender Analysis in Economics, and the Care Work Network.

Silverman also explained how the D.C. paid leave program addresses long-ignored racial equity issues. For years, debate surrounding universal paid leave programs has centered on white professional women advocating for paid maternal leave policies. But this focus ignores low-wage workers who are primarily Black and brown and may have differing leave needs. Approximately 95 percent of the lowest wage workers lack any access to paid leave.

Washington, D.C., a majority-minority city, aims to address this problem through a progressive wage replacement rate. Lower-wage workers receive 90 percent of their wages while they are on leave, with a weekly benefits cap of $1,000 . The city government is also tracking demographic data on which communities are utilizing the program and for what purpose.

In its first year, the leave program took in more than 12,000 claims for benefits, more than two-thirds of which were for parental leave. But according to Silverman, Black workers in particular have an outsized need for medical leave. Black workers in D.C. accounted for 38 percent of all paid leave claims in the first year of the program, but made up 56 percent of all medical leave claims. In the district’s predominantly Black neighborhoods, Black workers made up 41 percent of medical leave claims, but in predominantly white neighborhoods, that number fell to less than 25 percent.

“The expansion of paid leave in DC is a win not just for the working families of D.C., but also for the paid leave movement as a whole,” said Josephine Kalipeni, executive director of Family Values @ Work. “For nearly 20 years, we’ve worked alongside our partners across the nation to secure paid leave programs that will offer 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, the gold standard. The impact of this win goes beyond D.C. While many people live in DC, many more people work and live in surrounding states that do not have paid family and medical leave policies.”

Among care advocates, equitable paid leave policy needs to meet the triple A standard: Accessible, meaning it will cover all workers for all kinds of leave; Affordable, meaning progressive wage replacement and job security for those on leave; Adequate, meaning the leave is long enough to allow time for bonding and healing.

On the federal level, President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda originally called for the “gold standard” of 12 weeks of paid sick and parental leave, as well as progressive wage replacement that would have covered up to 90 percent of earnings for the lowest-income workers and self-employed workers. But similar to the fight for paid leave policy on the state level, the federal push for universal paid leave faced intense opposition from Republicans and some Democrats. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), for instance, has expressed concerns about the policy’s impact on the federal deficit and unfounded claims that workers would use the leave to go on “hunting trips.”

But local elected officials and advocates urge federal lawmakers to examine how a universal paid leave policy would not only benefit workers and their loved ones, but employers as well.

Whatever happens on the federal level, advocates are working tirelessly on the state level to introduce paid leave legislation that meets the “triple A” standard. Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and even Manchin’s home state of West Virginia have all recently introduced paid leave legislation.


If you liked this article, please donate $5 to keep NationofChange online through November.