Paid Leave Law Tries to Help Millions in Crisis. Many Haven’t Heard of It.

(NYT) - The program has received relatively little publicity, and there has been confusion among business owners and workers.

Paid Leave Law Tries to Help Millions in Crisis. Many Haven’t Heard of It.

With schools and day care centers shuttered, working parents have struggled. But a new paid leave program created to help them is not well known and has been little used.

The paid leave program passed by Congress in March was supposed to help workers cope with the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. It has struggled to do so. Many Americans are ineligible, and many more are unaware the benefit even exists, surveys show.

The virus and lockdown orders have presented a particular challenge in the United States, the only rich country without widespread paid leave. And the temporary program is falling short of its drafters’ hopes of helping workers who need to take time off for health or child care reasons during the pandemic.

Eligible workers can receive two weeks off at full pay, up to $511 a day, for sick leave, and 12 weeks at two-thirds pay, up to $200 a day, if their children’s schools or child care are closed. The congressional Joint Committee on Taxation estimates the program will cost $105 billion.

Nearly half of Americans have heard very little or nothing about the new leave benefit, and just 13 percent said they had heard a lot, according to one of the surveys, by Morning Consult for The New York Times. Just 28 percent of leaders of businesses covered by the new law said they were taking advantage of tax credits available for reimbursement of employees’ paid leave, according to another survey.

Now, as sectors of the economy move to reopen with the virus still spreading and schools still closed, access to paid leave is newly urgent. It’s “critical to slowing the spread of this virus and to reopening the country,” Senator Patty Murray of Washington State, a Democrat, said in an email. She accused the Trump administration of failing in its responsibility to make the law work.

Ms. Murray and other supporters of the leave benefit say political disagreements, as well as confusion among workers and business owners, have hamstrung the program. So has a relative lack of publicity, particularly when compared with vastly more expensive efforts to extend loans to small businesses and to expand unemployment benefits. Lawmakers and the Labor Department have also taken steps to limit the program’s reach, further reducing the potential number of workers it could help.

“Yes, it’s a failure of the policy, and yes we should be doing more to communicate with workers about these benefits,” said Adrienne Schweer, director of the paid leave project at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “But also, I think all the new programs that exist to help buttress financial supports for workers are really confusing and hard for small businesses to navigate.”

From the start, some Republicans and business leaders pushed to limit the people who were eligible for the plan, which was included in the second of a series of economic rescue bills. The program as approved excluded people at companies with more than 500 employees: roughly half of American workers. It also allowed businesses with fewer than 50 people to opt out, potentially excluding an additional quarter of workers.

In the survey of American workers, one-fifth said they planned to take leave; 12 percent said they did not; and a quarter said they didn’t know. The rest said they weren’t eligible.

People without a college degree, earning less than $50,000 a year or living in rural communities were slightly less likely to have heard much about the program. Those who said they planned to take leave were more likely to be in their 20s or 30s; Hispanic or African-American; government workers; or parents of children under 12.

The share who plan to take it is lower than some analysts and policymakers expected. Chanel Archer, a behavioral health specialist in Indianapolis and the single mother of a 4-month-old, had not heard of the paid leave option when she told her supervisor she was feeling overwhelmed.

“I always believe anything is possible, but it is truthfully nearly impossible to work and take care of a newborn,” she said.

Her supervisor told her that as a parent without her usual child care options, she was eligible for two weeks of leave at two-thirds of her pay, which she plans to take. Ms. Archer said she did not know about the additional time available.

Surveys of business owners show concern about how employees’ new health and child care needs are affecting their work, but also deep uncertainty about the paid leave program.

A survey of 502 leaders of businesses eligible for the policy showed a split: 44 percent thought it was helpful, and 37 percent thought it was harmful. A large share, 70 percent, said the need to provide paid leave contributed to their decision to lay off or furlough workers. Forty percent said no employees had taken the leave, and 20 percent said only a few had, according to the survey, which was conducted by Morning Consult for the Bipartisan Policy Center. Companies that provide the leave receive a credit against taxes they pay quarterly to the federal government.

Surveys of members of the National Federation of Independent Business, an advocacy group for small business owners, show widespread anxiety about the program. Nearly three of five respondents said they were very or moderately concerned about the program’s mandates as the country began to reopen the economy.

“With all the other challenges that small businesses are facing, adding on more requirements and mandates is just really stressful,” said Holly S. Wade, director of research and policy analysis for the federation.

Many business owners probably don’t understand the details of the tax credits reimbursing them for paying for leave, or can’t afford to front the money before the refunds arrive, analysts said. The smallest businesses rarely have human resources, legal or accounting departments to advise them. Employers are required to notify employees about the benefit, but they say that’s harder to do when people are working remotely.

John Montgomery is the president of GSI Water Solutions, an environmental consultancy in Portland, Ore. He estimates that 10 of 65 employees have taken the leave, which he called a helpful tool: “I think it gave mostly our employees with kids a relief valve from the pressure to work a full eight hours when a kid’s crawling on your back.”

The benefit was simpler to figure out than, for example, the paycheck protection program, he said, and he benefited from H.R. and legal advice. Smaller businesses without those resources are “really struggling to stay on top of one more thing they have to deal with right now,” he said.

Democrats who wrote the program into the virus rescue bill say its visibility and effectiveness have been hampered by the Labor Department, which effectively exempted many small businesses from its requirements in regulatory guidance issued in early April. They also concede there is little appetite among congressional Republicans to pass mandates to expand and publicize the program in the next economic rescue package, which remains in early-stage discussions.

Senator Murray and Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut wrote to the department last month to raise concerns about the leave program, including requirements for companies to publicize it.

“Thanks to Republican opposition, the steps we have taken on paid leave aren’t nearly enough and exclude far too many people,” Ms. Murray said on Thursday. “But if even workers who do have the right to paid leave under the law don’t know about it, then how are they going to take it?”