Here’s What Women’s Rights Lawyers Want You To Know About Supporting Working Women During COVID-19

Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
A Better Balance’s free legal helpline has been ringing off the hook. A woman with a high-risk pregnancy calls because her doctor recommended she stay home from work due to COVID-19, but her employer provides no paid sick days or paid family leave. A pregnant nurse who is immunosuppressed calls because she is scared of contracting COVID-19 at the hospital but is still being told she has to come to work.
This is what it’s like to be a women’s rights lawyer in the age of the novel coronavirus, working around the clock to help women and families across the country face the tug-of-war between the CDC’s health recommendations — the agency now considers pregnant women to be among those at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19 — and the scant economic support available to working families.
Advertisement
When we pick up the phone, we should have a clear answer to provide to these women — the answer should be that there is a national right to pregnancy accommodations, paid sick days, and longer-term paid family and medical leave that covers all workers, including in times of public health emergencies. Unfortunately, for too many, that is not the case. Not even close.
The coronavirus is exposing many failings in our society, one fundamental one being this country’s lack of support for women and families, including its refusal to guarantee paid sick time or paid family leave, pregnancy accommodations, or comprehensive, affordable child care. As is the case both in and out of crisis, women, especially mothers, are bearing an unequal brunt.
Thirty-three million workers in this country do not have access to a single paid sick day. Women — and especially women of color — are overrepresented in low-wage industries where workers have no paid sick days and are often fired, punished, or not paid for an absence. And caregiving responsibilities still disproportionately fall on women and mothers. Just ask the mother of four small children whose school and daycare are closed, who called us wanting to know if she’ll be fired for calling out of work, or the single mom of a toddler who called struggling to figure out childcare so she can keep earning a living, or the 8.5 million other single moms just like her.
The emergency Families First Coronavirus Response Act that Congress passed on March 18th offers paid sick time and paid family leave protections to some during these months of crisis, but it fails to offer any protection to nearly 59 million workers because it exempts those who work for employers with 500 or more employees. That’s not to mention that businesses with fewer than 50 employees can also claim a hardship exemption, and employers of healthcare providers or emergency responders can exclude their employees from coverage, potentially leaving millions more without protection.
Advertisement
States like New York are stepping in with their own emergency response bills to fill some of the gaps in the federal policies, but even the New York emergency paid sick leave law leaves out certain classes of workers like gig workers and independent contractors.
If all of this seems confusing, it’s because it is. Fifteen years ago, our cofounders — attorneys and working mothers themselves — started this organization to sound the alarm bells on this paucity of protections for working women and caregivers, and to give voice to those workers who are just one sick child or pregnancy-related need away from losing their paycheck. Our current public health emergency is exposing the millions of personal emergencies women face every day when juggling work and family. Since the organization began pushing for these protections, states and cities have stepped up to pass paid sick time laws, paid family leave programs, and protections for pregnant workers. But if ever there was a wake-up call that state-by-state, city-by-city action is not enough, that time is now.
All hope is not lost. One key component of the latest federal stimulus package, the CARES Act, signed into law on March 27, temporarily extends unemployment insurance benefits and provides pandemic unemployment assistance. But the package did not create any permanent
right to paid leave nor did it expand coverage for the emergency paid leave benefits, which are especially critical for health care workers and low-wage employees working in retail and other essential services. Several lawmakers, including Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Patti Murray and Representative Rosa DeLauro, also introduced the PAID Leave Act, which in addition to guaranteeing emergency leave would create a permanent, nationwide right to up to seven days of paid sick time and a permanent paid family and medical leave program. It’s taken far too long for Congress to recognize the struggles of the working families who make our country run — let’s hope they rise to the occasion to finally put the needed supports in place.
And through it all, A Better Balance is here to help women and families wade through the confusion, the uncertainty, and the ever-changing legal landscape. We’re only a phone call away.
Sarah Brafman is Senior Policy Counsel and Director of the DC Office at A Better Balance, a national legal advocacy organization whose mission is to ensure workers can care for themselves and their families without risking their economic security. A Better Balance is a leader in the movements to pass pregnancy accommodation, paid family and medical leave, and paid sick time laws at the local, state, and national levels and maintains a free, confidential legal helpline (1-833-NEED-ABB) where workers of all income levels can call with questions about workplace rights around caring for oneself or their family.

More from Work & Money

R29 Original Series