The delta-driven summer wave of COVID cases appears to finally have peaked in states across the US. But that doesn't mean COVID is finished complicating life for cities and towns that experience outbreaks that force schools to temporarily return to online-only education. And with federal benefits for families, including for parents who must take leave of work to care for their young or sick children, drying up in September, economists worry the complicated situation for parents will continue to weigh on the labor market and the broader economy.
According to one policy wonk quoted by Bloomberg in a story about the problem facing millions of American parents, parents will have no choice but to play the "boss lottery" - ie relying on their supervisors to be understanding when childcare issues arise.
“Working parents in most states and cities are facing an uncertain fall,” said Vicki Shabo, senior fellow for paid leave policy and strategy at New America’s Better Life Lab. “Parents are essentially playing the boss lottery if a child is sick and needs to stay home.”
Some school districts in the south and west have already returned to online-only education following local outbreaks.
Since the onset of the pandemic, parents or caregivers have filed roughly 100 lawsuits under the now-expired Families First Coronavirus Response Act, alleging they were fired or unlawfully denied leave when schools or day cares shut down. This represents about a quarter of the more than 400 cases brought since last April under that law, which also provided protections for workers with Covid-19 symptoms or who needed to care for someone quarantining.
The virus already is forcing schools and districts in several states—largely in the South where vaccination rates are low and mask mandates are rare—to return to online learning after reopening in person. Closures have been reported in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Texas, and Virginia, with many more schools starting back up in coming weeks.
It's also leading to a surge of lawsuits that's only expected to continue.
The fact that the US has no paid family leave laws means the level of protection enjoyed by parents is largely decided state by state and company by company. Lower-paid workers typically have few, if any, benefits.
The end result is that we could see women ebb out of the labor market once again in the coming months, as more opt to simply quit their jobs to stay home with the children as their family scrapes by. This problem will also be exacerbated by companies asking employees to come back to the office.
"What happens when a company requires workers to come back to the office?" Quintana said. "If parents choose to keep their kids at home, how will their job be protected if they require them to return to work? I’m curious to see whether the pandemic will have a long-term impact on the changes in the law."
Here's a glimpse of what the situation looks like on a state by state basis.
Thirteen states, Washington, D.C, and dozens of localities have permanent paid family and medical leave laws. Some include provisions that allow workers to take sick time when a workplace or school is closed.
A handful of others—including New York and Colorado—also have passed emergency leave laws in response to Covid-19. Not all cover closures and many may expire soon.
This scattered approach can be difficult for employers to navigate, said Joshua Seidman, a labor and employment attorney with Seyfarth Shaw LLP in New York.
“There are so many variations in terms of benefits,” he said. “It’s a problem for employers given how quickly the landscape is moving and for workers to know what rights exist under the law.”
While providing paid family leave would be an onerous cost for American businesses, giving big corporations another advantage over small and medium-size businesses, without it, the economy will likely suffer as millions of parents are left exposed to an outbreak at their child's school. Of course, in Bloomberg's piece, the economic outlook is being provided by civil rights advocates, not economists.
The scarcity of paid leave for working parents will hurt the economy, civil rights proponents say.
Women make up the largest share of the unemployment figures in the last year, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
As of July, 28,000 women and 112,000 men ages 20 and over returned to the labor force, are actively looking for jobs or are now working. Women accounted for just 20% of those who re-entered the workforce in July and the participation rate remained unchanged, NWLC data shows.
“We are concerned about the public health implications of the pandemic in the short-term and what will happen long-term to parents dropping from the workforce, most of them women who are already facing huge gaps,” said Vasu Reddy, senior policy counsel at the National Partnership for Women and Families. “There will be economic effects of not having this access to leave.”
If the situation is as dire as Bloomberg's sources seem to believe, then imagine how the Fed might respond when women start quitting their jobs and, ultimately, dropping out of the labor force altogether?