In January, my mom had surgery a month after having undergone a previous surgery. Complications from the first procedure had depleted my parents’ time off from work, so I stayed with them, cooked for them, did the grocery shopping and cleaned. While I did this, my life didn’t stop — work was busy, my dog needed to be walked, and I was exhausted from caring for someone else. 

These stories repeat themselves in families around the country. Same stories with different beats  — new mothers caring for their children, frightened husbands caring for spouses with cancer, and millions of people caring for elderly parents. My story is different because I had access to caregiving leave. My job was protected, and my paycheck was guaranteed. But millions of Americans are not so lucky.

The United States is the only country in the industrialized world without any form of paid family and medical leave. That means one in four new moms go back to work within two weeks of giving birth. According to the Department of Labor, 81 percent of working people in America have no access to paid leave, and it’s worse for people who can afford it the least. Among low-wage workers, only 6 percent have access to paid leave through their employers. 

The consequences are staggering. A Harvard study found that one in three caregivers have quit a job because of their responsibilities. With over 40 million caregivers in America, this means increased turnover, absenteeism and fewer working people. The Department of Labor found that if American women — the largest group of unpaid caregivers — stayed in the workforce as often as Canadian and European women do, it could lead to $500 billion more in yearly economic activity.

But this is not only an economic issue. It is about human dignity. When we are in the most vulnerable and important moments of our lives — when we’ve given birth or are at the bedside of a dying parent — we deserve time for those moments without fearing for our jobs and paychecks.

This issue touches nearly every family, but its consequences disproportionately affect women and people of color. For Asian American communities, many of these policies also go against our family values. The AARP reported that 73 percent of Asian Americans believe caring for their parents is expected (versus 49 percent of the general U.S. population). In my home country of Pakistan, there is a common Islamic sentiment: “Heaven lies under your mother’s feet.” Filial piety is built into our upbringing, stories and histories. When faced with the realities of humanity, prioritizing work can create an uncomfortable tension between the desire to be a high-performing professional who never complains and the cultural values and practices that are so important to many Asian American families.

There are also cultural beliefs around elder care when it comes to nursing homes and end of life care. For many Desis (South Asians), nursing homes are a last resort, nearly a taboo. Language barriers for older immigrants also mean that younger family members must take time off from work and step in for medical care — for doctors’ appointments, treatments, and the daily routine of caring for someone who cannot cook, bathe or dress themselves. Paid leave is for those moments and so many others. It gives us time to be with family when it matters most, and gives us dignity to honor our family’s values, history and culture.

If your workplace does not already offer paid family and medical leave, you can make it happen. 

  • Talk to people at your workplace: Gather stories from your coworkers about how their parenting, caregiving or medical needs have made it tougher to do their jobs. 
  • Know what good policy looks like: A high-quality paid leave policy equally benefits all employees and offers a minimum of 12 weeks parental leave and six weeks of family and medical leave. Our research found that six months of leave is ideal for new parents, caregivers and medical needs. 
  • Bring data and numbers: When you speak with Human Resources or other decision makers, come armed with your colleagues’ stories and data on the benefits for employers and policies offered by competitors. Paid Leave for the U.S has a free toolkit and a cost benefit calculator that can be adapted for your employer. 

If your workplace offers paid leave, use it! You can set an example for others, particularly around caregiving needs, by changing workplace culture that discourages people from taking the time they need. 

When it comes to the law, policies are slowly changing. Eight states and Washington, D.C. now have policies for statewide paid family and medical leave. But many of these policies leave out people who work part-time, gig workers (e.g. Uber drivers) and public employees (e.g. teachers). Like every other industrialized country, we need a national policy that covers every person, no matter where they live or work. 

To change that, we have to be loud about it. Call your Member of Congress and Senator and tell them that we need paid leave. Talk about it with your family and friends. Most importantly, share your story. 

Nearly every person in America will need paid family and medical leave at some point, and who you work for or where you live shouldn’t determine whether you can be with your family when it matters. As an immigrant, assimilation means changes to so many parts of my life. One place I shouldn’t have to negotiate is when it comes to the beliefs I brought along with me: families take care of one another; nothing else comes first.  

Author

  • Guest contributor Meshal DeSantis is Press Secretary for Paid Leave for the U.S., a non-profit fighting to win paid family and medical leave for every person in the United States.