In the United States — the only high- or middle-income country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development without nationally guaranteed paid family leave — the coronavirus outbreak has brought the urgent need for family-friendly policies into sharp focus. While many caregivers have shifted to working from home, many others have either lost jobs or continue to work outside their homes despite the closure of schools and child care centers. This reality speaks to the conflict between care and career that occurs when policies cannot meaningfully provide caregivers with the resources and flexibility they need to support our country's youngest citizens.
In light of COVID-19, the following three priorities are more important than ever:
1. Workers deemed "essential" deserve fundamental protections
Protections are needed for the most vulnerable and marginalized workers, including those whose jobs are designated "essential."
As more states and municipalities institute "shelter in place" mandates, the distinction between those who can afford to stay at home and those who cannot has become stark. This is especially true of workers who are now deemed "essential," including those employed in health care, grocery, delivery and agricultural sectors (among others). While millions rely on these individuals to keep society afloat, many of these workers receive low wages and/or represent marginalized or vulnerable groups.
For example, a World Health Organization analysis found that 70 percent of the world's health care and social workers are women, many of whom are caregivers themselves. In the child care industry, employees — who are predominantly women of color earning less than $15 per hour — continue to need particular support as they provide critical services to those on the pandemic's front lines while attempting to keep themselves and their families healthy.
Policies must provide immediate health and economic protections to workers at greatest risk of contracting COVID-19. As these individuals propel society forward now, forthcoming legislation must not leave them behind in the future.
2. Work policies must reflect the realities of family life
Children, families and businesses need family-friendly policies before, during and after a crisis.
The COVID-19 pandemic has left many feeling anxious and overwhelmed, and children may be especially concerned or confused about the novel coronavirus. Implementing policies such as worktime flexibility allows caregivers time to care for their family's wellbeing while also adjusting to the realities of working and learning under quarantine.
In addition to providing flexibility, family-friendly policies may also include resources for counseling and social services. Cities like New York have instituted "safe time" policies allowing employees to utilize sick leave to tend to needs that may arise as a result of experiencing domestic, sexual or intimate partner violence, for example. Proactive policies like these are necessary for the safety and wellbeing of women and children during times of crisis and household stress, when they are more likely to experience domestic violence.
Even during stable times, family-friendly policies demonstrably benefit children, parents and businesses. For example:
- Early childhood development programs make a uniquely cost-effective impact on a child's future success. A report by the Heckman Equation project further estimates that accessible, affordable, quality child care leads to an annual 13 to 16 percent return on investment.
- Initial studies from California point to improvements in child and maternal health as a result of expanded paid caregiving leave. Other studies suggest that women remain more engaged in the labor force when family-friendly policies are made available.
- Family-friendly policies in Nordic countries have contributed to an estimated 10 to 20 percent increase in GDP over time.
3. Government support is critical to the expansion of family-friendly policies for all
Supportive government policies will enable businesses of all sizes to extend the availability of family-friendly policies to all.
While many businesses can and have done much to advance family-friendy policies, the consequences of the novel coronavirus outbreak demonstrate the pressing need for long-term federal support for children and caregivers. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, only about 19 percent of workers in the United States had access to employer-sponsored paid family leave and a limited number of states had instituted their own paid family leave programs. As more workers and businesses continue to lose jobs and revenue as a result of shutdowns, it is likely that access to family-friendly policies will become increasingly scarce for families, especially the most vulnerable.
Even if emergency measures provide support for families and businesses in the short term, the U.S. must look ahead to creating a sustainable system that enables every child to thrive. This includes ensuring that all caregivers, regardless of role or status, have access to sufficient paid family leave and accessible, affordable, quality child care. Doing so not only has economic benefits, it is also what America's children need to ensure the best start in life, and a brighter, more resilient future for all.
- Visit the UNICEF coronavirus disease (COVID-19) web page for more information on how to keep children and families safe and healthy.
- If you are an employer, review the new joint UNICEF, International Labor Organization and UN Women guidance: Family-Friendly Policies and Other Good Workplace Practices in the Context of COVID-19: Key Steps Employers Can Take, as well as UNICEF's 7 Ways Employers Can Support Working Parents During the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Outbreak
Top photo: On the morning of March 18, 2020, 8-year-old Luka plays with stuffed animals in between completing school exercises on his third day of distance learning from home in Connecticut, while his mother, Sophia, works on her computer. School closures during the coronavirus pandemic have impacted the educations of more than 1 billion students worldwide — and their parents and teachers. © UNICEF/UNI313392/McIlwaine