Although it can be difficult to see a global pandemic as anything other than bleak, COVID-19 has shed light on the many ways the U.S. can do better by families. Now, experts believe we're witnessing a paradigm shift that could lead to real progress for American parents.

By Maressa Brown
March 26, 2020
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As if raising a child in the U.S. wasn't challenging enough, given the lack of support for parents, families all over the country are currently facing one uphill battle after the next. From the child care crisis to lacking paid sick and family leave, the global pandemic is serving to exacerbate many parents' greatest stressors. Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, executive director and CEO of MomsRising.org and board president of the MomsRising Education Fund, explains, "Our nation is in a crisis, and the pressure point of that crisis is coming down on moms—particularly moms of color, even more than in the past, because it's amplifying the cracks that were already in our system."

The good news is that as dark as this moment might feel, it seems to be marking a paradigm shift. "There's never been a more important time for us to update our entirely outdated family economic and health policies in the United States of America," says Rowe-Finkbeiner.

Here are seven benefits that could stem from this crisis, thanks to increased visibility of key issues affecting parents.

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1. Affordable Child Care

"This crisis is highlighting the challenges working parents face regularly around child care," says Mary Beth Ferrante, founder of WRK/360 and advocate for helping families get back into the workplace. "The pandemic is causing widespread school and care closures across the country all at the exact same time. While this is unprecedented, working parents regularly are met with child care breakdowns from a care provider's own illness, to regular vacations and school breaks."

Rowe-Finkbeiner adds that the pandemic is highlighting the need to provide adequate pay for child care teachers, as well as highly affordable, quality early learning for children.

One glimmer of hope: MomsRising has been working on the Child Care for Working Families Act, which would provide funding to prevent no family making less than 150 percent of the state median income from paying more than 7 percent of their income on child care.

2. Paid Sick Days

Far too many parents have to choose between going to work sick or losing out on a crucial paycheck. "We know that 70 percent of low-wage workers, most of whom are women and moms, don’t even have access to a paid sick day," says Rowe-Finkbeiner.

Yet, when people go to work sick—otherwise known as presenteeism—it decreases their productivity, their colleagues' productivity, and it raises the likelihood of transmission among employees, notes Rowe-Finkbeiner. "It costs more money out of businesses to not have paid sick days than it does to have them," she says.

Thankfully, temporary relief is here. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) offers provisions for paid sick leave, requiring employers with under 500 employees to provide two weeks' worth of paid sick leave if employees are unable to work because they're subject to quarantine or isolation, are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, are caring for someone who is in quarantine or isolation, and/or have children in schools that have closed. And if you're self-employed, there will be a tax credit equivalent to the sick leave amount.

Moves like these should only serve to expedite action on longer-term solutions, like the Healthy Families Act, which would allow workers to earn up to seven paid sick days a year to recover from short-term illness, care for a sick family member, attend medical appointments, or seek assistance for a domestic violence, stalking, or sexual assault issue.

Rowe-Finkbeiner says that local laws are already making a case for the federal government to follow suit. "The city of Seattle has paid family medical leave and paid sick days, and they’ve had the highest job growth and the highest minimum wage," she says.

3. Paid Family Leave

As anyone who has given birth, supported a partner who has given birth, welcomed a child through adoption, or needed time off to care for an aging parent knows all too well, paid family leave is far from guaranteed for all Americans. Only 16 percent of workers have access to it, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics.

The newly passed FFCRA offers up to three months of paid family and medical leave, equivalent to no less than two-thirds of the person's pay. With hope, this will make way for more permanent legislation, like the FAMILY Act, an insurance program that would provide workers (including those who are self-employed or part-time) with income while they, or a family member, welcome a baby or deal with a serious health issue.

Just like with paid sick days, local government policies are paving the way and should offer parents hope. "Some states like California have had paid family medical leave for a while, and they’ve shown they’ve increased productivity and retention, which saves businesses money because they don’t have to do that recruitment and rehiring," says Rowe-Finkbeiner.

4. Greater Acceptance of Remote Work

"One silver lining of the crisis is that it's forcing many employers to accommodate telework, even if they were resistant before," says Sarah Christopherson, policy advocacy director at the National Women's Health Network (NWHN). "Telework isn't feasible or right for everyone, but it can make a big difference for parents and for people with disabilities that make commuting more challenging. Some of the accommodations that workers were told were impossible are, it turns out, actually quite possible after all."

Many of those privileged enough to work from home during the coronavirus pandemic are proving that they can tackle work and unapologetically care for their families simultaneously. "'Parenting out loud' at work is becoming more normal than ever before—babies in the background, homework questions mid-conference call, and the once viral sensation of a toddler popping up on live broadcast are happening during video conferences across the country," says Ferrante. "When we return to the office, the wall between work and family will be cracked, if not broken, and hopefully, with it, we can end 'secret parenting.'"

5. Improved Employee and Consumer Benefits

Many large tech companies are providing more support to all of their workers, says Ferrante. For example, she says Facebook is providing payouts to all of their staff and continuing to pay contractors, and Twitter will cover additional daycare expenses parents may have if their usual daycares close due to COVID-19.

That said, these moves will hopefully inspire other companies—of all sizes—to support their workforce. "We also must recognize that the majority of U.S. workers are employed by much smaller organizations that may not have the resources to provide additional support," notes Ferrante. "However, every leader has the opportunity to lead with empathy and take the approach that the majority of their employees have the best intentions to get work done; it just might be done in a different way or timeline. And to keep the lines of communication open."

Meanwhile, private companies are announcing policies that will provide low-income families with extra support through this challenging time, like Comcast's offer of two months of free internet and Charter Communications's offer of free broadband and Wi-Fi access for 60 days to households with K-12 and/or college students who do not already have a subscription.

6. A Push for Wage Equality

Rowe-Finkbeiner points out that our economy is based on consumer spending—and most purchasing decisions are made by mothers. Yet moms, and particularly moms of color, experience the most extreme wage and hiring discrimination of anyone in our country. This means we all lose out.

"There is no single silver bullet to get rid of the wage and hiring discrimination that's impacting so many moms, and moms of color in particular, but we do know that a set of solutions actually helps lower that wage gap between moms and non-moms," says Rowe-Finkbeiner.

The set of solutions includes legislation on not just wage equality—such as the Paycheck Fairness Act, which MomsRising helped pass through the U.S. House of Representatives—but the whole kit and caboodle of family-supportive legislation, including paid family medical leave, access to earn sick days, access to affordable child care, and access to health care.

"These policies all add up and amplify one another," says Rowe-Finkbeiner. "And as they do, they actually lift up our economy and our businesses, too. So it's a win-win-win-win."

7. Bolstered Health Care

The pandemic is throwing a klieg light on the importance of health care affordability and access for all. In response to the crisis, 11 states and the District of Columbia have opened enrollment under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) so that anyone who has been laid off can get subsidized health insurance.

That's good news for families who can afford those insurance plans, but it's a different story for low-income parents. To date, 37 states have expanded Medicaid for these families. (Check out this map to see if yours is included.) But that still leaves 14 states where affordable coverage is severely lacking.

"We're pushing states that haven't expanded Medicaid to do so now, while they can save lives," says Christopherson. "Some of the poorest parents don't have health care in the midst of a pandemic, even though the federal government would cover most of the costs. And others may only have 'junk' plans or 'skinny' plans, which don't cover hospitalization or treatment. This crisis is driving home how important it is that we all have high quality, affordable coverage, because we're all impacted by the health of our neighbors."

To that end, the pandemic is further strengthening the resolve of organizations like the NWHN and Kaiser Family Foundation to push Congress to make the ACA more generous so that more people can afford coverage.

"They don't need to wait through a lengthy bureaucratic process," says Christopherson. "Governors and state legislatures could expand tomorrow if they chose to. Now is the time to push for expanded coverage for everyone, building on the real health care law we have in place now."

The Bottom Line

With hope, this pandemic will make it impossible for our society to look away from the hardships and inequalities faced by families nationwide. And this will lead to louder and bolder conversations about the structural changes that need to be put in place to support parents.

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