Center for American Progress

Black Women Need Access to Paid Family and Medical Leave

Black Women Need Access to Paid Family and Medical Leave

Black women are staying in the workforce, but their need for paid leave continues to go unmet.

Workers pack and ship customer orders.
Workers pack and ship customer orders at a fulfillment center in Romeoville, Illinois, on August 1, 2017. (Getty/Scott Olson)

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, one issue that has garnered particular attention is how working families’ lack of access to comprehensive supports, such as paid family and medical leave, threatens both their short- and long-term economic stability. Much of the public narrative has focused on how the absence of these supports has pushed many women out of the workforce in order to fill caregiving gaps for their families or for themselves. What frequently gets lost in this discussion, however, is that many women—particularly low-income women, single mothers, and women of color—simply cannot afford to leave the labor force to address their caregiving needs because their economic contributions are far too important to their families’ financial stability.

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In particular, the experiences of Black women, who have among the highest labor force participation rates but also work disproportionately in low-paid jobs with few benefits, are instructive. Their experiences make clear that policy supports to assist women, in and out of the workforce, with caregiving challenges are essential to build on the country’s recovery to date, help women retain jobs without eroding their economic stability, and ensure that no one is left behind.

While the need for paid leave stretches across race, ethnicity, and gender, this column focuses specifically on Black women because of both their labor force participation and the outsize economic role that many play in their families. Indeed, the vast majority of Black mothers—more than 80 percent—are sole, primary, or co-breadwinners for their households. This is a far greater share than that of mothers from other racial or ethnic groups, demonstrating how vital Black women’s earnings are to their families’ economic security.

The scope of the unmet need


The number of leaves needed by all working women in a given year

CAP analysis of output data provided through the Worker Paid Leave Usage Simulation (Worker PLUS) model


The number of leaves needed that are not taken by women each year

CAP analysis of output data provided through the Worker Paid Leave Usage Simulation (Worker PLUS) model


The number of leaves that are taken by women each year without pay

CAP analysis of output data provided through the Worker Paid Leave Usage Simulation (Worker PLUS) model

Black women’s need for leave often goes unmet

Like all women, Black women’s need for caregiving, parental, and health leave often goes unmet. According to Center for American Progress’ findings, in a given year, approximately 2.9 million leaves are needed by working Black women, but 1.1 million—or 38 percent—are not taken. This includes 75,000 leaves needed but not taken for parental leave (21 percent), 291,000 leaves needed but not taken for caregiving leave (55 percent), and 721,000 leaves needed but not taken for one’s own health (36 percent). (see Figure 1)

Figure 1

The inability to meet these needs stems in part from the lack of strong policies to address care needs, a failure deeply rooted in the long-standing racial and gender biases that have devalued care work and care workers. Black women, who represent a disproportionate share of paid caregivers, have often been expected to provide care to others for low pay, with little regard to whether their own care needs are met.

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The magnitude of unmet leave needs among Black women is particularly worrying given existing health disparities within the United States that often fall most heavily on Black women. This includes unacceptably high rates of chronic illness as well as tragically high rates of maternal and infant mortality. In fact, Black women, as well as their infants, are significantly more likely to die in the weeks after birth than are any other group of people.

Access to paid leave could make it economically possible for Black women who are ill to seek the treatment they need earlier and to manage their ongoing treatment. The health implications of a lack of paid leave are especially salient now during the COVID-19 pandemic, as an estimated 10 percent of people who contract the virus will experience debilitating longer-term symptoms. Indeed, a recent CAP analysis demonstrated that COVID-19 had resulted in an estimated 1.2 million more disabled people by the end of 2021.

While 38 percent of Black women who need leave do not take it, many of the Black women who do take leave do so without receiving pay. In a given year, 1.8 million leaves are taken by Black women, but about 42 percent of those leaves are taken without pay. Unpaid leave is particularly common among Black women taking parental leave: 55 percent of parental leaves taken by Black women are unpaid. Furthermore, 40 percent of leaves taken by Black women for their own health are unpaid, as are 36 percent of caregiving leaves.

Even when Black women are able to take leave with pay from their employers, they often do not receive their full wages. For this group of women, paid leave with a higher- or full-wage replacement rate could provide needed economic support to enable them to take the amount of leave they need rather than the amount they can get by with.

Lack of paid leave has significant economic consequences for Black women

Not receiving pay or only receiving partial pay while on leave can put Black women and their families in precarious economic situations. Using a simulation model to estimate wages lost while on leave, research has shown that Black women lose an estimated $3.9 billion each year due to lost wages while on leave—$2.8 billion while on their own health leaves, $866.4 million while on parental leaves, and $223.7 million while on caregiving leaves. Limitations of this model do not account for lost wages due to unemployment when leave is needed, which would result in even higher estimates of lost wages.

These wage losses can have dramatic effects on household finances. Significant shares of Black families rely on the earnings of Black women. In fact, a recent CAP analysis found that a total of 68 percent of Black mothers are the sole or primary breadwinner for their household, and 82 percent are the sole or primary breadwinner or co-breadwinner. Thus, losses in earnings due to a lack of paid leave are likely to be most acutely felt by Black women’s families since they are more likely to depend on their earnings.

Read more on the need for paid family and medical leave


Now more than ever, the lack of a federal paid leave policy is being felt by workers across the country. This is particularly true for Black women, whose families are more likely to rely on them both for their caregiving needs as well as the economic security they provide.

“Policymakers should be focused on permanent solutions that improve the overall quality of jobs by creating protections that enable workers to take time off for care purposes without the risk of losing their job.”

Emergency paid leave provisions provided through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) at least partially filled this gap during the early months of the pandemic by providing up to two weeks of emergency paid sick leave and up to 12 weeks of emergency leave for child care. Yet these provisions left millions out and have since expired. Such emergency paid leave policies undoubtedly were an economic lifeline for millions of Black women and their families, but the data show that even in “normal,” non-pandemic years, there is substantial unmet need for paid leave among Black women that results in caregiving, economic, and health inequalities.

Policymakers can address the immediate, critical caregiving needs of workers by reinstating paid leave provisions and strengthening them by covering all workers regardless of employer size or sector. This includes providing both short- and long-term medical and caregiving leave, expanding maximum allowable leave lengths, increasing the wage replacement rate, expanding the definition of family to include chosen family, and providing employment protections for those who use paid leave.

Policymakers should be focused on permanent solutions that improve the overall quality of jobs by creating protections that enable workers to take time off for care purposes without the risk of losing their job. It is vital that we adopt national permanent paid leave policies to better support the needs of Black women—and all workers—and to promote racial, gender, and economic equality.

Jessica Milli is the principal and founder of Research 2 Impact and provides expert guidance to organizations and philanthropists on leveraging research to drive social change. Jocelyn Frye is the president of the National Partnership for Women and Families. Maggie Jo Buchanan is the senior director of the Women’s Initiative at the Center for American Progress.


The analysis in this column makes use of output data from the Worker Paid Leave Usage Simulation (Worker PLUS) model developed for the U.S. Department of Labor by IMPAQ International and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. The Worker PLUS model uses data from the Family and Medical Leave Act employee survey to model worker leave-taking behaviors and outcomes, simulating those behaviors and outcomes in the American Community Survey (ACS).

Because of the large sample size and rich set of demographic information about respondents, the ACS output data from the Worker PLUS model allows for a detailed analysis of the need for leave, leave-taking behaviors, and whether any pay is received by Black women while on leave in a way that has not previously been possible due to data limitations. Data on worker leave-taking patterns, their wages, and whether they received pay on leave—as well as how much pay was received—allowed CAP to estimate the total amount of wages lost by Black women while on leave.

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Maggie Jo Buchanan

Former Senior Director and Senior Legal Fellow, Women’s Initiative

Center For American Progress

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