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Why I'm impatient for paid family and medical leave

5 min
Two women hold their child while sitting at a kitchen table looking at their computer.
Photo by Maskot | Getty Images
Editor’s Note: Evoke originally published this piece in 2019. Since then, the pandemic has made the issue of paid leave even more important, which is why are republishing the piece again now.

Today, the culture and public policy structure in the United States emphasizes work over all else. As a result, families are struggling—torn apart by the overwhelming work it takes to put food on the table and the fundamental need to be at that table to support your family with your presence, care, and love.

But for a country so obsessed with work, the United States has very few laws or federal programs that actually support working people. We don’t have a single law that requires paid time off for any reason—in fact, the United States is one of only two countries in the world that doesn't guarantee paid maternity leave.
The U.S. is one of only two countries in the world that doesn't mandate paid leave.
I’ve been an advocate and organizer in the United States for nearly 20 years and have spent much of that time focused on the problem of achieving equality for women. I've found that this country's lack of paid time off—paired with the unequal distribution of unpaid family care responsibilities—is at the root of women’s inequality and family instability.

Because this country lacks a national paid leave policy, 1 in 4 women are back at work within 10 days of giving birth. And 1 in 7 low-wage workers say they have lost a job due to a personal illness or needing to care for a child or parent. Federal paid leave policy in the United States is long overdue, and the only thing standing in our way is the political will to win it.

Building political will is what I do. Over the course of my career, I’ve been a part of countless winning campaigns that have had real impact on people’s lives – ending the Boy Scouts of America's anti-gay policy, getting dangerous chemicals out of consumer products, passing paid family leave in the state of New Jersey and paid sick days in Connecticut, and so much more. Four years ago, impatient about the lack of paid leave in the United States, I asked myself “What would it take to win paid leave in the United States?” And I wrote a plan.

That plan became PL+US: Paid Leave for the United States, a national campaign to win federal policy by 2022.

Our approach is straightforward:

Step 1: Change workplace practices and policies

Step 2: Make paid leave politically beneficial for legislators

Step 3: Build public demand for high-quality policy
working people have lost a job due to unpaid leave
Since our launch in 2016, we have won paid leave in workplaces for more than 5 million people, including at major brands like Walmart and Starbucks. We have launched the first-ever paid leave champion program, endorsing candidates who support great paid leave policies and helping to send 28 paid leave champions to Congress. We are building local campaigns that educate and pressure federal legislators to prioritize paid leave legislation. And this summer, we will begin our national education campaign to grow the public's understanding of and demand for effective policy.

I’m impatient for paid leave in the U.S. because I see an exciting window of opportunity to get this done once and for all. Thanks to the efforts of all the organizations that have been pushing to increase access to paid leave, we now have momentum in workplaces, growing bipartisan support, and increased public frustration at income inequality and its consequences.

And the stakes are high. At the current rate of adoption of paid leave policies in workplaces and the states, it will take about 150 years for everyone in the U.S. to have paid leave. We can’t afford to wait.
At the current rate, it will take 150 years for everyone in the U.S. to have paid leave.
This is personal for me.

Because there was a time when I desperately needed help, too: Following a major surgery, I found myself unable to walk for days. For weeks, it hurt to do anything. On top of it alI, thanks to that major surgery (a C-section), I had a brand-new baby to learn to feed, hold, change, soothe, and bathe.

And that wasn't all. Soon after, my father-in-law was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and we needed to be there to take care of him and to support my mother-in-law, who was losing her husband of nearly 40 years. My husband was able to hold his dad’s hand in those final hours. No one should be alone through that. Not anyone.

The people we love will always need help. I will always need help, and so will you. Right now, in the United States, we have an opportunity to pass paid family leave to make help possible, for millions of people around the country.

And we must.