Guarantee 20 days of paid leave

Grocery store checkout clerk
Editor's note:

This blog is part of a series highlighting policy proposals from Richard Reeves and Isabel Sawhill’s 2020 A New Contract with the Middle Class.

Seven out of ten mothers who are essential workers or working from home report that it is difficult to balance work and family, according to new work from our colleagues in the Hamilton Project. According to the same study, parents of young children and Black and Hispanic mothers with young children were more likely to drop out of the labor force or be unemployed because of the pandemic.

The Future of the Middle Class Initiative’s own research from the American Middle Class Hopes and Anxieties Study explores this time squeeze in detail. In a series of focus groups around the country, the team, led by Jennifer Silva, Tiffany Ford, and Isabel Sawhill, heard middle-class Americans say that they struggled to balance their schedules and time spent with family. Pre-COVID-19, some participants even expressed concerns about the sustainability of their lifestyles. The common refrain “What if something happens?” foreshadowed the economic turmoil caused by COVID-19.

So, what could be done to lessen the time squeeze? Isabel Sawhill and Richard Reeves have suggested a range of approaches, from a reduction in the standard work week to mid-career sabbaticals to subsidized childcare. One thing that the pandemic has taught Americans is the importance of guaranteed paid leave: to take care of family members, to recover from illness, or even to get vaccinated.

In fact, the American Rescue Plan Act restarted and expanded several paid leave policies related to COVID-19. It restarted Emergency Paid Sick Leave (EPSL) hours, giving employees who had exhausted the previous allocation more time off, and it expanded the reasons for EPSL and Expanded Family and Medical Leave (EFML). While these steps will undoubtedly help workers navigate time off during the pandemic, they still do not match the guaranteed paid leave in many other countries.

All work and no play (or paid sick leave)

As Reeves and Sawhill write in A New Contract with the Middle Class, Americans are working more than adults in other advanced countries, often face unpredictable work schedules, must cope with school hours that are badly aligned with working hours, and get little help with caring for children or the elderly. Half of all American adults say they do not have enough time to do what they want with their days.

The U.S. now stands out among similar nations in terms of working hours. The average American worker now spends 200 to 400 more hours at work over the course of the year than the average worker in most European countries – the equivalent of an extra 4 to 8 hours per week :

Americans work longer hours than EuropeansFor the full selection of charts and figures, see A New Contract with the Middle Class.

Why do Americans work so many more hours each year than Europeans? Most of the gap results from differences in the number of weeks worked per year, rather than the length of the work week. This in turn reflects differences in legal rights to leave and holidays. The fact that the U.S. has no mandated leave at all (beyond some holidays) is the primary source of the gap; Germany provides twice as much time off as the U.S.:

Americans get fewer days off

Policy matters, which is why in the Contract, to help middle-class Americans have more time, and to ease the time squeeze, Reeves and Sawhill propose a legal right to a minimum of 20 days leave each year. More details follow, but first, it’s important to understand who currently has access to paid leave in the U.S.

Who currently has access to paid leave?

In their “Primer on access to and use of paid family leave” Isabel Sawhill, Sarah Nzau, and Katherine Guyot point to one of the most cited estimates on workers’ access to paid leave, that only 19% of U.S. employees have access to paid family leave through an employer. Some critics argue that this number is too low, since surveys of employees suggest around half can take paid time off for family reasons, even in the absence of a formal benefit plan. To explore this contradiction, they consider three surveys that provided new data on access to and use of paid leave in 2019, the National Compensation Survey, the American Time Use Survey, and the American Family Survey. They find that low-wage workers are less likely to have access to paid leave and tend to take unpaid leave at higher rates than other groups, though they take less leave overall:

While some of the provisions in the American Rescue Plan and previous COVID-19 relief bills help low-wage workers, the plans were not enacted as permanent solutions for the time squeeze.

A path forward: Twenty days of paid leave

Sawhill and Reeves suggest that one way to reduce working time is to require all employers to provide a certain amount of paid personal time off for all employees. The U.S., as we have seen, is the only advanced country that does not do this. The reasons for taking leave vary enormously – for illness, vacation, the birth of a baby, to care for an elder. They therefore propose in the Contract a broad rather than categorical entitlement, to 20 days per year of paid leave. This is less than many other countries but would at least establish a minimum floor. Some employers already provide this much paid leave in one form or another. But many do not – especially for their low-wage workers. Last September, Sawhill and Reeves concluded the chapter on time use with this statement: “In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for such leave should be obvious. Part of the new contract with the middle class should be: if you are sick, you must stay home. But we will pay you to do so.” As spring dawns, and hope blooms in the form of increased vaccination rates, lower unemployment rates, and increased spending, paid leave must be kept at the forefront of the policy conversation.