Wyden and Paluso: Child care, paid leave are essential. America needs to invest in both

Andrea Paluso is executive director of Family Forward Oregon. U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, a Portland Democrat, is Oregon’s senior senator.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 health and economic crisis, millions of women have been forced out of the workforce across the entire nation. Women in Oregon have felt the crunch too, leaving the workforce at significantly higher rates than Oregon men. Black, Latina and Pacific Islander women have been hardest hit by job losses, compounding the already disparate health impacts their communities have faced from the virus itself.

The research is clear: caregiving has always and continues to fall disproportionately on the shoulders of women, which means that a lack of affordable, accessible child care and robust paid leave programs forces women out of their jobs at a higher rate than it does men. This is an urgent jobs crisis that deserves a full-court press for solutions by policymakers in Washington, D.C. If we invest in a recovery that does not address the underlying issues women face, we risk making the inequities they face even worse.

Our child care system was a broken mess even before the pandemic struck. For far too long, working families have had too few options for affordable, quality child care in their communities. In Oregon, all of our counties are a child care desert for at least one age group of children, meaning there is little to no access to affordable child care. Nearly 50,000 Oregon parents have had to make career sacrifices due to issues securing child care. Child care providers, who are disproportionately women of color, are also earning incredibly low wages, despite how important their work is in ensuring that our kids are well cared for and in enabling the rest of us to work. Their work should be valued and they deserve a living wage reflecting its essential importance.

Investing in child care means boosting the supply and quality of affordable options for all families. This will allow parents to keep their jobs and ensure their children are being cared for in safe and supportive environments while they work. A robust child care system — one that makes child care available to all families — would mean economic security for Oregon women and families, child care providers and our state as a whole. More than that: affordable and reliable child care means economic opportunity for mothers, Oregon and our entire country. There is no better way to jumpstart our economic recovery than by investing in mothers and care.

The pandemic has also magnified the importance of paid family and medical leave, another inequity faced by working families, and especially working mothers. The United States is one of the only high-wealth countries that does not guarantee paid sick and family leave at the federal level. As things stand, many employers don’t provide paid leave, especially in jobs deemed “essential” during the pandemic, forcing too many hard-working people to make the impossible choice between their health or the health of their family and their paycheck. Again, this policy failure is borne largely by women, who are more likely than their male counterparts to drop out of the workforce to take care of children or family members who need help.

Comprehensive paid family leave would make it easier for everyone to balance work and family without sacrificing their livelihoods or jeopardizing their futures. Paid leave is one of the most effective tools to keep mothers and caregivers in the workforce and is essential for the health and economic security of every family during a pandemic and beyond.

Advocates have been saying this for years: comprehensive paid family and medical leave makes it possible for working parents to raise children or care for ailing family members while also keeping the lights on and food on the table. An Oregon paid leave law that goes into effect in 2023 will go a long way to ensure that Oregon mothers and caregivers are not forced to choose between career and family. But at the federal level, more must be done to support everyone in this country equitably — including many Oregonians’ family members in other states. America’s working families cannot rely on the will of states alone to invest in their wellbeing.

As Congress puts together its upcoming infrastructure package, it is important for us all to remember: Child care is essential infrastructure. Paid leave is essential infrastructure. Care work is essential work. These are key pieces to getting all Oregonians who can work back to work and bolstering an equitable economic recovery.

Together we are committed, from the halls of the U.S. Capitol to communities across Oregon, to continue fighting tooth and nail in order to adequately address the child care and paid leave needs of Oregon families. The mothers and caregivers of Oregon deserve better, and we’re dedicated to building back a more equitable economy that works better for women and their families.

Andrea Paluso is executive director of Family Forward Oregon. U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, a Portland Democrat, is Oregon’s senior senator.

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