By Tracy McDaniel
Feb 28, 2021
COVID-19 made clear that U.S. workers struggle to balance work, health, and family obligations. This is particularly true for women, especially women of color, who have left the workforce at alarming rates in the last year, including 275,000 American women in January alone. This exodus of women from the workplace is due in large part to the conflict between work and caregiving. We can and must find ways to help New Mexicans balance work obligations and caring for their health and their families.
The U.S. has struggled to cope with the economic realities of the pandemic in ways that other countries have not. One significant reason for this difference is the lack of support for workers who are suddenly unable to participate in the workforce due to health-related or caregiving concerns.
Among wealthy nations, the U.S. stands alone in its failure to ensure paid sick leave and paid family leave to workers.
As one of their first acts in response to COVID-19 in March, members of the U.S. Congress enacted temporary paid sick and paid family leave. While leaders in other countries were working to address the myriad issues related to the economic and public health crises, Congress was caught debating paid leave measures that have been guaranteed to workers elsewhere around the world for years. The provisions they passed were temporary, limited and have since expired.
Guaranteed paid leave has been replaced with a temporary tax credit for employers who choose to provide leave. Because of the limited reach and voluntary nature of these provisions, many New Mexicans have been unable to access this support.
While limited in their reach among New Mexicans, this series of rushed temporary measures at the federal level have demonstrated that paid leave policies are necessary to an economy’s ability to respond, adapt and bounce back from major financial and public health disruption. Based on an Urban Institute analysis, states with existing paid family and medical leave programs were better able to respond to pandemic-related claims than those relying solely on unemployment insurance systems.
If New Mexico had a such a program in place before the pandemic, our economy and our communities would have suffered less from coronavirus-related hardships. We now have the opportunity to create systems that support future economic resilience for New Mexico.
The state Legislature currently is considering House Bill 38, which would create the Paid Family and Medical Leave Trust Fund administered through the Department of Workforce Solutions. After six months of contributions, individuals would be able to receive leave compensation from the trust fund to take up to 12 weeks away from work to welcome a new child, manage a serious health condition or care for a family member with a serious health condition.
Because of the economic downturn, HB 38 proposes a delayed implementation timeline with more than two years to begin rolling out the program. The delay recognizes both the economic realities facing New Mexico and the urgency of the moment.
In the face of an unprecedented crisis last spring, precious time was wasted at all levels of government, scrambling to deal with a problem that other countries have already solved. We must support workers and ensure economic stability. A paid family and medical leave policy is imperative to our economic security at the individual, community, state and national level. For New Mexico to be ready for the next emergency and to protect everyday workers experiencing caregiving needs and health conditions, we must act now to enact paid family and medical leave.
Tracy McDaniel is a policy advocate with Southwest Women’s Law Center. She has been working to improve
outcomes for young children and families in New Mexico since 2009.