As the United States sees an increase in COVID-19 cases across the country, millions of people are expected to lose the critical benefits that Congress enacted — including emergency paid sick days and paid family leave. Three out of four rural voters support permanent legislation mandating paid sick and paid family leave programs. Rural women in particular support these policies, with 81 percent supporting a national paid sick day policy and 78 percent supporting a national paid family and medical leave policy. Recent polling demonstrating that voters believe the government hasn’t done enough to solve the health and economic problems caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. And yet, gridlock in Congress will bring an end to much-needed programs.
Although the pandemic has been devastating across the country, women in rural communities have been hardest hit. Rural communities are seeing more cases per capita than urban or suburban areas. People who live in rural communities often face even greater challenges to addressing the pandemic — from fewer hospital beds and the distance to travel to a hospital to a lack of broadband internet for telecommuting and virtual schooling. For context, approximately 46 million women live in rural areas across the United States. And in 84 percent of rural counties, racial and ethnic diversity has increased over the past two decades. These areas are home to more than 13 million Native Americans, Black, and Latinx individuals — groups facing especially high risks of exposure, hospitalization and even death from COVID-19.
Recent polling illuminates the unique challenges women living in rural America face amidst this pandemic. These women struggle to access crucial services such as health care and child care, as well as policies like paid sick days and paid family and medical leave. Nearly one in six rural women (16 percent) report leaving their job, reducing their hours or taking time off due to COVID-19 and among those who are employed, nearly half (47 percent) said they would receive no pay if they took two weeks off from work.
Additionally, access to emergency paid family leave is especially important to rural women, who are less likely to have access to adequate child care. Almost 60 percent of people living in rural America live in a ‘child care desert’, where there is only one licensed child care slot for every three children. The lack of adequate child care in rural America is a huge problem — and one that often falls on the shoulders of mothers. Newborn babies in rural America outnumber licensed child care slots 9-to-1, a statistic that often means that these new mothers have no choice but to leave the labor force. Without adequate paid leave, these parents face financial insecurity during an important time in their lives and a crucial time in their babies’ development. Without paid leave policies, these women have to take unpaid time off to care for a sick child, or may even be compelled to leave the workforce entirely.
These findings reflect longstanding inequities in paid leave access for rural workers. Pre-pandemic, only one-third of women residing in rural areas reported access to paid time off they could use for family care, compared to almost half of women living in urban areas. Rural workers are also more likely to lack access to paid sick days, with 44 percent of rural workers lacking access, compared to only 34 percent of suburban and 38 percent of urban workers. Additionally, rural women are more likely to work in occupations and for employers that put them at a statistical disadvantage for access: for example, almost six in 10 rural women work for employers with fewer than 99 employees, which are less likely to provide paid sick days or paid family leave.
Earlier this year, organizations representing hundreds of thousands of small business owners signed on to a letter urging Congress to guarantee paid family and medical leave for all small businesses and their employees in the United States. The lack of a federal leave program while our nation faces the COVID-19 pandemic disadvantages small businesses relative to big business overall and clearly disproportionally affects rural women in the workforce.
The COVID-19 pandemic shines a spotlight on the discrepancies in our country’s access to paid sick and paid family and medical leave programs. Only a handful of states and localities — mostly larger cities — have passed legislation mandating these programs. People need permanent national paid sick and paid leave policies such as the Healthy Families Act and the FAMILY Act now more than ever — especially people who live in rural communities and are less likely to have access to these benefits through their employer.
Congress must extend the emergency benefits that women and families are in dire need of, especially paid sick days and paid family and medical leave, and must prioritize making these programs permanent next year.