‘The disruption for a person’s financial security is enormous.’ Gaps in access to paid leave may lead to financial hardships, report finds.

Personal finance

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The Covid-19 pandemic helped shed light on the need for increased access to paid leave for U.S. workers.

Yet more than two years into the pandemic, there are still gaps in access to those benefits. That leaves many workers vulnerable to financial hardships, a new report from the Urban Institute finds.

The report is based on data from the Washington, D.C.-based think tank’s latest Well-Being and Basic Needs Survey, which measured the responses of 8,142 workers ages 18 to 64 in December.

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Access to paid leave is highest among workers with high incomes, with 81%; those who have college degrees, 79%; and full-time workers, 79%, according to the results.

Those who were most likely to lack access to these paid time off benefits include part-time or hourly workers, people with lower family incomes, and workers who are noncitizens, less educated, younger or are Hispanic/Latinx.

Notably, women ages 18 to 34 reported the lowest rates of access to paid leave for child birth.

Gaps persist amid efforts to broaden paid leave

Efforts on Capitol Hill to pass a paid leave program have stalled after a version of the Build Back Better Act passed in the House with four weeks’ paid family and medical leave.

However, there has been other progress since the start of the pandemic, the Urban Institute report notes.

“What the pandemic brought out is both the need for medical leave and the need for caregiving leave, because people were stressed on both fronts, in terms of dealing with their own illness and having to care for family members,” said Jack Smalligan, senior policy fellow at the Urban Institute’s Income and Benefits Policy Center.

Currently, 11 states and Washington, D.C., provide paid leave programs, with four states adding plans since 2020. Those states are California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Oregon, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Washington.

Some employers also expanded the benefits they provide to workers after the onset of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, temporary federal legislation, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, made it so certain employers had to provide paid sick, family and medical leave to workers for reasons related to Covid-19. In exchange, they received tax credits to cover the cost of the benefits.

Despite efforts to expand access to paid leave, gaps persist.

The survey found 69.2% of workers overall have access to at least one form of paid leave. Most respondents indicated they have access to leave for their own illnesses or medical care, with 67.4%. That was followed by time off to care for a family member, with 53.9%, or due to the birth or adoption of a child, with 53.7%.

Many workers who have access to paid leave indicated they are limited to two weeks or less.

Among all employed workers, the data found 29.8% have access to paid parental leave that is separate from paid sick leave, while 30.9% of workers have separate paid medical leave and 22% have separate paid family caregiving leave.

Lack of paid leave leads to financial hardship

Workers who do not have access to paid leave were more likely to experience multiple kinds of financial difficulties in the preceding 12 months, the survey found.

That includes problems paying family medical bills, with 15.1% of workers without paid leave reporting such difficulties, compared to 10% of workers with paid leave. Meanwhile, 17.5% of those who don’t have access to paid leave reported having an unmet personal medical need due to cost, compared to 11.4% of those with access to paid leave.

Moreover, about 18.9% of workers without paid leave are uninsured, compared to 3.4% of workers with paid leave.

The disruption for a person’s financial security is enormous.
Jack Smalligan
senior policy fellow at the Urban Institute’s Income and Benefits Policy Center

Workers who don’t have paid leave for family or medical reasons were three times more likely to have difficulties paying their rent or mortgage.

Notably, 24.5% of workers without access to paid leave did not think they could cover a $400 emergency expense, versus 9.3% of workers with paid leave who said the same.

Workers without paid leave access who cannot work for a couple of weeks will likely suffer financial consequences that cost much more than $400, Smalligan noted.

“The disruption for a person’s financial security is enormous,” Smalligan said.

As state and federal policymakers consider expanding paid leave programs, certain features could help narrow the access gaps and financial hardships they cause, the report concluded. Such options include broader worker coverage and eligibility, progressive wage replacement, job protections and more worker outreach and education.

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