Structural and discriminatory barriers have disadvantaged people of color throughout our country’s history and are responsible for punishing economic, wealth and health disparities that persist today. Our failure to adopt a national paid family and medical leave program exacerbates the problems families of color face — but access to paid leave can promote racial equity in the labor force, help businesses increase their diversity and enhance the economic security of families of color and all those struggling to make ends meet. A well-designed, strong, comprehensive national paid leave plan would guarantee meaningful, widespread access to paid leave for serious family and personal medical care needs — and, over time, help promote racial equity and, ultimately, justice.
Those are among the conclusions of Paid Family and Medical Leave: A Racial Justice Issue — and Opportunity, released by the National Partnership for Women & Families today. It notes that America is facing a paid leave crisis and the consequences can be especially damaging for people of color. Inequitable access to paid leave exacerbates the race-based disparities, including a huge wealth gap and dramatic inequalities in access to economic supports and quality health care. These overlapping challenges stymie economic mobility and opportunity for families of color. Among the inequities that create challenges:
- People of color have significantly less wealth to draw on in times of need. The typical white family has $140,500 in wealth, compared to $6,300 for the typical Latino family and $3,400 for the typical Black family.
- Women of color continue to experience a punishing wage gap, with Black women typically paid just 63 cents, Native women just 57 cents and Latinas just 54 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men.
- Latinos, Native Americans and Black people tend to have more chronic health conditions and have them at younger ages than white people, which magnifies their need for family caregiving and personal medical leave.
- Only 25 percent of Latino workers and 43 percent of Black workers report having access to any paid or partially paid parental leave, compared to 50 percent of white workers.
- Sixty-two percent of Black adults and 73 percent of Latino adults eligible for unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) cannot afford to take unpaid leave, compared to 60 percent of white adults.
- Black and Latino workers are more likely than white workers to report that there was a time in the last two years when they needed to take paid family or medical leave but were unable to do so.
The cumulative effects of these challenges can be devastating, especially for women of color, who are more likely to have caregiving responsibilities, to face barriers to economic resources, and to lack protections that are essential to supporting their families. Paid leave is one policy that can help. For example, research shows that California’s paid leave program helped close gaps in the duration of leave taken by white women and women of color and is correlated with women’s increased work hours and income in the years immediately following a child’s birth.
“It’s clear that women and people of color need and will benefit from paid family and medical leave, but the policy details matter. I am encouraged to see more and more policymakers across the political spectrum looking for ways to provide paid leave, which supports women, working families and the economy, but in order to be effective, any new policy must recognize the discriminatory, structural barriers that penalize people of color and especially women of color. To be equitable and just, any paid leave program must make leave accessible and affordable without perpetuating stereotypes about women’s roles or exacerbating workplace discrimination against caregivers,” said Debra L. Ness, president of the National Partnership. “A poorly-designed paid leave program that does not place the needs of women of color at the forefront risks excluding the very people who may face the greatest barriers to taking leave.”
Paid Family and Medical Leave: A Racial Justice Issue — and Opportunity concludes that paid family and medical leave programs at the federal or state levels can help alleviate some of the health and economic disparities many people of color face. It recommends including job protection, strong anti-discrimination and anti-retaliation language, progressive wage replacement, portability and coverage across multiple jobs, and at least 12 weeks of leave to address parental, family care and medical needs. Any program also must have dedicated funding for outreach and education, which will help make people aware of programs and the benefits they provide, as well as funding for enforcement to promote equitable program usage and treatment by employers, the new report says.
“Ensuring that paid leave programs are responsive to the needs of people of color will benefit all of us — workers, families, businesses and the country,” said Vicki Shabo, vice president for workplace policies and strategies at the National Partnership. “As we work to make opportunity more equal and advance racial justice in this country, we should recognize paid family and medical leave as an important part of the solution. For Black women, who suffer much higher rates of maternal mortality than white women, and for many families of color, many of which have higher family care burdens, paid leave can be a matter of life or death as well as an economic imperative.”
The National Partnership is releasing this issue brief just one day after new national survey data, which shows that more than eight in 10 voters — including 79 percent of white voters, 88 percent of Black voters and 89 percent of Latino voters — want lawmakers to prioritize a national paid family and medical leave policy that would allow working people paid leave to care for an ill or elderly family member, a new child or their own serious health issue. What’s more, voters say they are more likely to support lawmakers who champion a strong, comprehensive national paid leave policy.
“As we head toward the fall, it would be wise for lawmakers across the country to prioritize this issue and take action,” Shabo added.
About the National Partnership
The National Partnership for Women & Families is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group dedicated to promoting fairness in the workplace, reproductive health and rights, access to quality, affordable health care and policies that help all people meet the dual demands of work and family. More information is available at NationalPartnership.org.