More than 30 million U.S. workers are employed in industries that put them on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic.
They include grocery store clerks, nurses, cleaners, warehouse workers and bus drivers, among others. Nearly one-in-four frontline workers — 7.5 million — are also mothers caring for minor children.
Mothers make up a larger share of the frontline workforce (23.8 percent) than they do of the workforce as a whole (16.9 percent). Nearly a third (32.8 percent) of workers in childcare and social services industries are mothers, as are more than a quarter (28.8 percent) of workers in healthcare industries.
On this Mother’s Day, we should honor and applaud these mothers.
But what frontline mothers need most is a commitment to ensuring they all have access to paid sick days, paid family and medical leave, affordable and quality childcare, and other important benefits during this crisis and after. These kinds of family policies are commonplace in other rich nations, but largely lacking in the United States even during a pandemic.
Federal emergency legislation passed in March includes some of these policies, but typically only on a limited and temporary basis.
The Families First and Coronavirus Response Act requires employers to provide up to 12 weeks of paid family leave to employees who are unable to work because their child’s school or childcare center has been closed. The act also requires employers to provide up to 80 hours of paid sick time for employees who have or are experiencing symptoms of coronavirus, or have been advised to self-quarantine.
Unfortunately, these provisions don’t apply to employers with 500 or fewer employees, and the Labor Department can exempt businesses with fewer than 50 employees. Moreover, the provisions expire at the end of this end of the year.
By contrast, most comparable nations had permanent paid-leave protections in place before the pandemic; the United States is the only one of 22 high-income nations to lack a permanent, national guarantee of paid leave.
The United States also falls short when it comes to child benefits. Most rich nations provide a “child allowance” or “child benefits” to most or all families with children.
These policies recognize that raising children has social value. In Canada, for example, all children in low- and middle-income families receive a monthly child benefit, known as the Canada Child Benefit.
The maximum benefit is $553 (Canadian) per month for children under six and $467 per month for children 6 and over. The maximum benefit doesn’t start phasing out until a family has an income of $31,000 a year.
This difference is felt especially keenly by mothers in frontline industries in the United States, who are more likely to be low-income than the rest of the U.S. workforce.
While the United States has a permanent Child Tax Credit, the maximum benefit is much smaller than the Canadian benefit, the credit is paid only once a year, and families with very low incomes receive no or only a small benefit.
The CARES Act does provide a $500-per-child benefit for families with children that is more inclusive. However, this is only a one-time benefit, and has been difficult for many families to access.
Moreover, citizen and non-citizen children alike are ineligible for the benefit if they live with an immigrant parent who does not have status as a lawful permanent resident.
Notably, there is an exception for children whose immigrant parents are veterans, but no such exception for children whose immigrant parents are essential workers — even though immigrants are overrepresented among mothers on the frontlines.
In the next round of legislation responding to the pandemic, Congress should address these limitations, so that all mothers receive the help and support they deserve as essential workers, both in the paid workforce and as unpaid ones caring for their own children.
Congress should also act to preserve, expand and improve the quality of our early education and child care system.
In addition to helping parents, jobs in the early education and child care system could be an important source of employment for millions of workers displaced from retail and hospitality sectors that are unlikely to bounce back quickly.