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Op-ed: Latinos deserve equal access to paid leave and workplace flexibility

For too many Latinos in the United States, being a good worker and a good family caregiver are mutually exclusive. Across the country, Latino workers are the least likely of any racial or ethnic group to have access to paid sick days, paid parental leave, paid vacation, or any form of workplace flexibility. Latino workers are also more likely to be employed in low-wage or part-time jobs, where the line between just getting by and destitution can rest on a single day’s pay.

U.S. policies surrounding paid leave and flexibility for workers are notably antiquated. For one, the United States is the only nation in the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development that does not guarantee paid leave to workers after the birth of a child. The United States is also one of only a handful of nations—alongside places like North Korea and Chad—that does not guarantee paid sick leave when a worker is too ill to work.

Coupled with this stark divide between the United States and the rest of the developed world, the configuration of the American family has also changed drastically over the last few decades, markedly increasing the need for improved leave and flexibility policies. Only one in five families today (20.7 percent) consist of a male breadwinner and a female homemaker (compared with more than half of families in 1975). It is far more likely that a family is led by a single parent (31.9 percent of families) or by two working parents (the remaining half). Without a full-time, stay-at-home caregiver, parents without paid leave must too often choose between missing a day’s work—and pay—or caring for a sick child or, increasingly, an elderly parent.

Changing the status quo is even more urgent for Latino workers. A recent series of issue briefs from the Center for American Progress highlight findings on workers’ access to paid leave and flexibility based on 2011 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey. The data provide a compelling and sobering portrait of Latinos’ lack of access to paid leave and workplace flexibility.

Despite comprising just 13.3 percent of the U.S. workforce, Latinos make up one-quarter (24.5 percent) of all workers who lack both flexibility and any form of paid leave. Of any racial or ethnic group, Latinos are also the least likely to have access to paid sick days (only 38.4 percent) or paid parental leave (only 25.1 percent). They also have the least access to flexible hours (under 40 percent),which would allow them to shape their schedules to better fit non-work obligations.

One explanation for Latinos’ disproportionate lack of these vital benefits is the nature of their work. More than 56 percent of Latino workers are in the bottom 40 percent of earners, and low-wage jobs on average offer the fewest benefits and employee protections. This becomes of greater concern as we look at prospects for job growth in the United States over the coming years and decades. Low-wage jobs made up 21 percent of all job losses during the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009 but have made up nearly 60 percent of job gains during the recovery. Employees today are working harder than ever before and bringing in record profits for their employers without commensurate increases in their own salaries or improved access to benefits like paid leave.

Some opponents of paid leave legislation argue that workers do not need leave that is specifically earmarked for illness or birth when they can take paid vacation instead. Fewer than half (44.3 percent) of Latino workers, however, even have access to paid vacation, and those that do cannot use vacation time on a moment’s notice—when a child wakes up with a high fever, for example, and a father needs to take an unplanned sick day.

Anyone who has ever gotten the flu, needed to care for a sick loved one, or welcomed a new child into their home should understand that there are times when employees cannot be at work—but too often that means losing a day’s pay. With the aging of the baby boomer population and the increasing need for family caregivers as a result, these problems will only grow more urgent.

Good public policies for workers are crafted to ensure all workers benefit—not just those with the highest salaries or the best jobs. Policies such as the Healthy Families Act, which would allow workers in firms with 15 or more employees to earn up to seven paid sick days a year; creating a national paid family and medical leave insurance program as the Center for American Progress has suggested; or implementing the kind of workplace flexibility promoted by the Obama administration could go a long way toward addressing these inequities.

Sarah Jane Glynn is a Policy Analyst and Jane Farrell is a Research Assistant for Economic Policy at the Center for American Progress.

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