America is facing a paid leave crisis. Even as the need for paid family and medical leave is growing, 83 percent of working people do not have paid family leave through their jobs and fewer than 40 percent have medical leave through an employer-provided, short-term disability program. Huge differences in access exist by wage level and job type, so that those who struggle the most without pay have the least access to paid leave. While lawmakers across the political spectrum are beginning to recognize this as a serious problem requiring legislative intervention, rarely is it discussed as a racial justice issue.

This is a grave mistake. Failing to provide paid leave has especially devastating consequences for people of color that compound and exacerbate deep-seated and longstanding discrimination, institutionalized racism and vast income and wealth disparities.

From New Deal protections that effectively excluded workers of color to discriminatory government lending practices, discrimination intended to prevent people of color from advancing and achieving economic security has been embedded in America’s policies for decades. This has contributed to a cavernous racial wealth gap, as well as disparities in access to quality health care, health outcomes and access to both unpaid and paid leave.

Women of color bear the brunt of these disparities. Today, black women are paid 61 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men, Native women just 58 cents and Latinas 53 cents. The wage gap women of color experience is especially devastating given that 81 percent of black mothers are breadwinners for their families, as are more than half of Latina mothers. This means women of color are disproportionately faced with the choice of staying home to care for a loved one or themselves when illnesses or injuries strike and losing the chance to earn income. The combination of inequities and discrimination also means that families of color may be less able to withstand the financial hardship associated with a serious family or medical event and struggle more to recover their stability afterward.

Paid family and medical leave programs at the federal and state levels can help alleviate the health and economic disparities people of color face. But not any paid leave solution will do; any proposal that does not consider the systemic barriers to health and economic well-being that women and people of color face risks perpetuating disparities. In contrast, a well-designed paid leave policy could help make our country more just, families more economically secure and workplaces more equitable.

There’s evidence of the value of paid leave in California, where the paid leave program helped increase parity in the length of leave taken by white women and women of color, and is associated with other positive health outcomes. Researchers and lawmakers also recognized that program adjustments could create even greater equity and took steps to improve the state’s program in recent years.

To help erase disparities, a paid leave program must include job protection, strong anti-discrimination and anti-retaliation language and enforcement, progressive wage replacement, portability and coverage across multiple jobs, and at least 12 weeks of leave to address parental, family care and medical needs. It must have dedicated funding for outreach and education, which will make people aware of programs and the benefits they provide, as well as funding for enforcement to ensure equitable program usage and treatment by employers.

A recent bipartisan national survey suggests that elements of an equitable paid leave plan – a national program that covers all working people, provides 12 weeks of leave for parental, family care-giving and personal medical needs and has a dedicated funding source – are also popular with voters – Republicans, Democrats and independents alike.

If policymakers want to champion a paid leave plan that will make a real difference to those who struggle the most, they must consider the unique health and care-giving challenges women and workers of color face. An inclusive, comprehensive paid leave policy will center the needs of women and people of color. Learn more about how paid leave can help to make our country and workplaces fairer and tell your members of Congress to reject harmful paid leave proposals and support real paid leave.

 By: Vasu Reddy and Vicki Shabo