Choosing between family and work is a decision that no employee should have to make. But, it's a reality that an overwhelming number of Americans are forced to face due to a lack of paid family and medical leave.

Currently, the United States is the only industrialized nation without a national paid leave policy, as lawmakers continue to debate legislation that will grant workers four weeks of paid time off. Right now, 79% of American workers  do not have paid parental or family caregiving leave, and 60% do not have paid medical leave, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center. Additionally, one in four American moms are forced to return to work just 10 days after childbirth, and 69% of working caregivers — who are predominantly women — are forced to rearrange their work schedule, decrease their hours, or take unpaid leave in order to tend to caregiving responsibilities.

"Paid leave is a universal policy," says Chief Member Molly Day, who serves as the executive director at Paid Leave for the United States (PL+US). "When I say that, I mean it is a policy that is universal in that if you're a human, you will need to give or receive care at some point in your life." As a country, she says, "we pride ourselves on family values and the value of really being there to care for our loved ones...and yet, we offer no support to people to weather these moments."

Day says that her daily work of building political strategies and campaigns to push for federal paid leave is closely tied to her own experience growing up. As a child, she says she lost both of her parents to cancer and she saw how her family's finances were deeply impacted because they didn't have access to paid leave.

"It really meant that we had to rally every member in our family to take sick days off to care for my parents," she says. "My grandparents dipped into their retirement account to rent a house down the street to care for my father after my mother passed away and to make sure we were cared for. Our family was able to make it because we had savings and we had privilege, but it is unfair that because we had money we were able to be there during my parent's illnesses to make memories and connect with each other."

Current Inequities Around Paid Leave

When looking at the number of American workers who have access to paid leave, Day points out that several disparities exist. "The reality is, you know, only about two in 10 Americans have access to any form of paid leave, and it's usually insufficient and it's usually used to directly benefit white, wealthy people in this country. So, we are excluding women in mass, we are excluding low-wage workers, and we are excluding communities of color."

According to a 2020 survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 8% of low-wage workers have access to paid family leave, compared to 33% of higher-wage workers. Additionally, 49% of low-wage employees have access to paid sick leave, compared to 92% of higher-wage employees. When broken down by race, 43% of Black workers and 25% of Hispanic/Latinx workers in the United States have paid parental leave, compared to 50% of white workers, reports the Center for American Progress.

"It's another form of systemic inequality that creates an economic divide in this country," Day says, while explaining that the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the need for paid leave, especially for women and workers of color who are overrepresented in low-wage roles.

Since the start of the pandemic, about 400,000 more women than men have left the labor force, with caregiving needs and a lack of workplace support being a huge factor. In fact, data shows that more than a third of unemployed Americans today say they would return to the workforce sooner if their employer offered paid family leave.

"When you think about the national conversation we are having about getting people back to work, we are leaving a whole group of people on the sidelines as a result of poor policy," she says.

How Business Leaders Can Help

As lawmakers debate paid leave at the federal level, Day says there are a few things business leaders can do to help move the conversation forward. "Executives need to contact their member of Congress," she says. "As a business leader or business owner, that business voice has an outsized impact, in particular on moderate senators who are key negotiators on this package."

In addition to contacting your member of Congress, Day says business executives should also use their public platform to bring more attention to the need for paid leave. "Write a Medium post and tweet about it," she says. "When you go on MSNBC or another network to talk about an issue pertaining to your business, put paid leave in your talking points and explain why providing it to your staff matters."

If you're a business leader whose company already provides paid family and medical leave to employees, then Day says you should also use your role as an executive to model what it actually looks like to take time off.

"I think the policy doesn't mean much if culturally businesses and workplaces don't enable folks to take that time," Day says. "I think it starts at the senior-most level, where we need to see men and women both take advantage of their access to [paid leave]." She says on several occasions she's heard of leaders, particularly male leaders, who don't use all of their paid family leave, even after the birth of a child. In turn, she says, this trickles down to how comfortable employees are with taking time off.

"I think this is a prime opportunity for C-Suite leaders to really walk the walk," Day says. "And then, also do some of the heavy lifting in business planning to prepare for someone's departure by establishing clear handoffs for work coverage."

While many paid leave conversations often center around leave for parents, Day says it's also important for executives to be mindful of the caregivers on their staff. "We are looking at a tsunami of caregiving needs in the next decade, particularly with the aging boomer population," she says. "And that has huge implications for the sandwich generation who may be welcoming new children into their lives while also caring for their parents. And if companies do not implement effective policies to support these workers that means they will lose out on excellent talent."