By Eleanor Krause

The United States may be referred to as the “leader of the free world” but it lags woefully way behind other nations when it comes to supporting its workforce – specifically, in providing employees with paid time off to address personal needs like caring for infants or elderly relatives, or recovering from personal illness. A few states and employers provide these benefits, but access is often restricted to high-wage employees with stronger bargaining power. I work for an organization with a generous vacation and sick leave policy, but I know that this is the exception, not the norm. I am not a single mother working a low-wage position forced to choose between my job and caring for my child.

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Research shows that America’s unique failure on this front holds our workforce, and our nation’s economy, back. Part of America’s gender pay gap is attributable to women disproportionately taking occupations that provide more flexibility, but pay lower wages. Even more concerning, many women (and men) leave the workforce entirely when their employers don’t grant them the flexibility to confront significant life events, such as the birth of a child.

However, today’s political dialogue appears to be more focused on creating work-friendly families, rather than family-friendly work. It is perfectly reasonable to create a policy intended to bolster female workforce participation and reduce the occupational disparities that exacerbate the gender pay gap. But I also yearn for policies that bolster our roles as mothers, daughters, friends, and neighbors. I shouldn’t need to experience a traumatic life event to justify my time away from the office. Perhaps I want to attend my friend’s wedding, go on a rock climbing trip, or just visit my family. In some workplaces, taking time off for any of these reasons would risk my reputation as a devoted employee. In others, taking time off would be impossible.

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Thankfully, paid leave is no longer a political pipe dream in this country. Both political parties appear at least lukewarm to the idea of working toward a federal policy. I supported research for a joint AEI-Brookings working group report on the need for and design of a federal paid parental leave policy. Washington movers and shakers took note. And while this is a good start, policy makers still need to come to consensus on the scope and definition of the problem before we move on to crafting solutions.

Our leaders should certainly craft workplace flexibility policies that reduce inefficiencies in the labor force. But being a good employee should not come at the expense of being a good parent, a good friend, or a good citizen. Instead of striving for a paid leave policy that treats life as an inconvenience that must be managed, we should strive for policies that enable individuals to tend to personal needs or desires while making an honest living. I identify as a woman before I identify as a worker, and I hope that we can enact policies that enable other women, particularly our society’s most disadvantaged, to say the same.

About the author: Eleanor Krause was a Graduate Scholar in 2015 when she interned for the World Resources Institute’s (WRI) U.S. Climate Program. She was an undergraduate at the University of Vermont, receiving a B.A. in Political Science and a B.S. in Environmental Studies. When Eleanor was a Foundation scholar, she was pursuing her graduate studies at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Policy and Governance and received a Master of Public Administration. Today, she is a senior research assistant at the Brookings Institution’s Economic Studies Department focusing on domestic poverty, income inequality and economic mobility.

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