Today, only some workers have access to paid time off to care for their loved ones or their own medical needs.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have proposed a national paid leave policy so that all workers can take time out of work.
The Covid-19 pandemic has helped focus attention on the issue, which was largely untouched by Congress since the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 let workers take unpaid leave for family or medical reasons.
In 2020, a temporary program was put in place to reimburse businesses that offered paid leave to employees during the pandemic.
Now, lawmakers are negotiating the terms of a more permanent policy, which could give workers up to 12 weeks’ time off.
Advocates applaud the move, which would help bring the U.S. in line with other industrialized nations.
“Paid leave is really a cornerstone policy,” said Molly Day, executive director at Paid Leave for the United States. “It gets women back to work on the other side of Covid, it ensures small businesses can attract and retain talent, and on a global level, it actually makes us competitive.”
To be sure, paid family leave has drawn its share of criticism, particularly over how it would be paid for and how it could affect companies’ existing policies.
However, families who faced dire care needs say their lives would be different if they had had access to paid family leave when they needed it.
When Ashton Dargenzio, 29, of Pittsburgh gave birth to her now 18-month-old daughter, she was faced with the difficult decision between taking unpaid maternity leave or continuing to work so she could pay her bills.
“Because I’m a single mother, I didn’t really have a choice,” she said.
The situation was complicated by the fact that Dargenzio’s daughter went straight to the newborn intensive care unit when she was born.
Dargenzio, who had a C-section, was unable to stay in the hospital with her daughter due to Covid-19.
Instead, she would wake up early each morning to go to the hospital and breastfeed her daughter, and then sit in a separate hospital room to simultaneously use a breast bump and work. When she was done, Dargenzio would relocate to the hospital waiting room, where she would set up her work station again.
Dargenzio currently is a contract worker in information technology, which requires constant problem solving and repairs, she said.
That schedule carried on throughout what would have been her 12-week maternity leave.
“It was one of the most frustrating and stressful things I had ever had to experience in my life,” Dargenzio said.
“Not having the experience of paid leave opened my eyes to see how many people actually have to experience that,” she said.