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Recently, a Twitter account with the handle @whasup_doc tweeted, “Use your PTO.” 

PTO is the abbreviation for “paid time off” from work, and the replies were revealing. Some took it as a rallying cry. Some tweeted their own advice and encouragement. But I know that many other responses reminded Black workers of their own experiences when they’ve asked for time off of work.

A Twitter user named @jbaby3266 said, “My job makes me feel bad for using my PTO.” Another user told the story of how his brother was fired hours after putting in a request for time off. “What if they won’t let you?” This was a question asked by another user.

Many of these workers were using PTO to generically talk about various types of leave, including paid vacation, paid sick days and paid leave. But regardless of the leave type, the statistics back up these experiences, even when the reason for taking time off work is to quarantine or to care for a sick family member during the pandemic. In a recent nationally representative survey, 28% of Black workers reported having their requests for paid sick or family leave denied. Just 9% of white workers said the same.

Taking time off work, especially when it comes to caring for yourself and loved ones, should not be left up to the whim of your boss. All people should have this right. But even now, in the midst of a pandemic where Black, Native American, Latinx and Asian American, and Pacific Islander workers, and particularly women, have been disproportionately affected by the worst of the virus, these groups also have the least access to paid time off from work.

Why is that? Well, the United States provides some economic support to workers, such as unemployment insurance and social security. But for the most part, employers have maintained wide-ranging power over workers’ income, location, health care, retirement and whether they can stay home from work if they are sick or if they need to care for a family member. As a result, just 21% of workers nationwide have paid family leave at their job, and just 40% have paid medical leave.

A new report from the National Partnership for Women and Families shows that many workers are unequally affected by this system. For example, the legacies of Jim Crow laws have steered workers of color, particularly women, toward jobs with lower pay, fewer benefits and fewer chances to move up the economic ladder. The result is that nearly 40% of Black workers say their employers do not offer paid time off from work for any reason.

Without paid leave, many workers resort to unpaid time away from work when they have a serious medical or family situation. But even if workers can afford to do that, it might put their job at risk. Women of color, white women, and Black and Latino men are more likely to work part-time, compared to white men. That means that these workers are usually ineligible for guaranteed unpaid time off work under the Family and Medical Leave Act. In other words, their employer could fire them for having a medical emergency, for example.

A federal law could fix this unfair system. We need a national paid family and medical leave program that would allow people to take time off of work to care for themselves and their families, regardless of who their employer is. A policy like this could correct the current disparities and remedy the historical bias that workers of color face.

For it to work, the program must give all workers paid time off from work, no matter where they live, no matter if they are part-time and no matter who their employer is. It should provide everyone with at least 12 weeks for parental, family care and medical leave.

To make sure the program is fair, it should be publicly administered. That way, if a boss denies workers their right to paid leave or retaliates against them for taking it, they would have some recourse. Given the history of bias, this oversight is crucial. For the same reasons, the program should also provide job protection so you can’t be fired for requesting time off.

Lastly, the program should make sure workers earning the lowest wages using the program get as close to 100% of their regular wages while they take time off. And this benefit should be portable, meaning it doesn’t go away just because you change jobs, hold down several jobs or start a business of your own.

This kind of national program would help the United States become a more equitable place to live and work — and it is more realistic than you might think. 10 states, including the District of Columbia, have already passed paid family and medical leave. Momentum has also been building at the national level with the FAMILY Act, a bill that includes many of the most important guidelines outlined above.

The truth of taking PTO while Black should make this an even more urgent priority.