Does the US need a national paid leave law after the pandemic?


When the coronavirus pandemic hit American shores in early 2020, questions emerged over how employers and employees would handle the anticipated need for workers to take time away for illness or to care for family members. Without a national paid leave law, the prospect of people going to work ill or losing their jobs due to childcare responsibilities became a substantial concern. Congress passed a paid leave law in March 2020 funding and guaranteeing paid leave for employees of businesses with fewer than 500 employees. This report summarizes the results from a longitudinal survey of working-age adults that asked about their access to paid leave during the pandemic, their use of leave (paid or unpaid), and their unmet need for leave.

The findings show that access to paid leave increased substantially from around March 2020 to February 2021. By February 2021, 69 percent of survey respondents who were working at the time of both survey waves reported access to paid leave. In the July 2020 survey, only 60 percent reported access to paid leave before the pandemic. Use of leave, whether paid or not, also increased among working-age adults from July 2020 to February 2021. Leave for one’s own illness was the most common, followed by childcare leave among parents. The majority of those who took leave reported receiving pay.

Despite increased use of and access to leave, working-age adults in our survey were also more likely to report an unmet need for leave. Approximately 30 percent of working-age adults working at the time of both survey waves expressed an unmet need for leave. Some of those who expressed an unmet need also reported taking leave, suggesting that the available leave was either not enough or not the right type. Workers from low-income households were more likely to report an unmet need for leave than their higher-income counterparts were. Working-age adults who reported needing but not taking leave gave different reasons. Among the most common reasons were not being able to afford lost income, fear of negative actions by the employer, too much work to do, or wanting to save leave.

Congressional action to expand access to paid leave during the pandemic likely contributed to the increased access to and use of leave among working-age adults identified in our survey. However, our results concerning unmet need suggest that many workers remained without enough leave, which could jeopardize their well-being and the well-being of those around them. Congress should be cautious in creating a new federal program to expand paid leave permanently since many workers had their needs met during the pandemic. However, the level of unmet need is enough that policymakers should consider appropriate federal paid leave policies that avoid crowding out private-sector benefits while meeting all workers’ needs.


As the coronavirus pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, the United States implemented a federally funded and mandated paid leave program to help working Americans meet the challenges of the pandemic.1 Although the Families First Act was temporary and only available to workers in businesses with fewer than 500 employees, it represented uncharted territory for our nation.2 The United States has never before enacted a national paid leave policy, in which the government guarantees Americans paid time off from work to care for children, recover from an illness, or care for an ill family member.

One question at the top of mind is how the experience of the pandemic changes the debate over a permanent federal paid leave program, if at all. Skeptics argue that employers and employees are best equipped to determine compensation and a one-size-fits-all government approach would crowd out private efforts and introduce unnecessary costs on businesses. On the other hand, advocates for a national paid leave program contend that many workers who need paid time off from work cannot access it through their employer, which harms their well-being and jeopardizes the health of those around them.

Recent years have seen federal paid leave proposals gain steam among Republicans and Democrats. The coronavirus pandemic has pushed this issue even further into the spotlight. Nobody likes the idea of an ill employee going to work because he or she cannot afford to take time away to recover; this is even truer during a pandemic. And the shock of closed schools and childcare providers during spring 2020 resurfaced questions about working parents’ ability to take time away from their jobs to tend to family and caregiving needs during times of need. However, before policymakers use the pandemic to justify a large, new federal program, we should first understand how the existing system held up during the pandemic and consider whether, in light of these findings, a national paid leave program would be worthwhile in the US.

In summer 2020, the American Enterprise Institute launched a longitudinal survey to better understand the changing dynamics of American families in this difficult time and assess federal efforts to mitigate hardship. A major section of the survey included questions about the availability of paid time off from work and leave-taking behaviors among workers. After the first wave of data collection in July 2020, we contacted respondents again to complete a second wave of the survey in February 2021. This report summarizes the results of the survey related to paid leave accessibility and leave-taking during the first year of the pandemic.

Read the full report.

Angela Rachidi is a Rowe Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. 

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