Can Democrats pass paid leave on a national scale?

Consuelo Hernandez has been helping care for his father since he fell from a roof while he was in high school. More than a decade later, his father remains in and out of the hospital – and he still cares for him.

With no paid leave to care for his aging parents, he had already spent his time off and was afraid of what the future would bring. “I know that the care he needs in the future will be much greater,” Hernandez said.

The coronavirus pandemic is also exacerbating long-term challenges, forcing Americans to make tough decisions about work, family, and staying healthy. Many Democratic lawmakers are betting pursuing family-focused policies such as paid leave will outweigh the backlash over the cost of the reconciliation package. Their argument: America can’t afford not to, and the pandemic is forcing this issue front and center.

“For years we’ve been banging on doors in Congress trying to get our colleagues to focus on paid leave and other key parenting policies—but these issues are seen as thought after the so-called ‘real economy’ issues,” said Senator Patty Murray. , a Washington state Democrat, who has been pushing for paid leave since entering Congress in 1993, in a statement. “Now, COVID-19 has pushed this once-silent epidemic to center stage, and the entire country is seeing what everyone who has ever had to take care of themselves or a loved one in their heart: paid leave helps workers, makes business more profitable. competitive, and strengthen our economy as a whole.”

The United States is one of only eight countries without paid parental leave, and the only high-income country, according to the Center for Bipartisan Policy. It is also the only rich country without policies to care for loved ones.

Paid leave has broad support. A CBS News poll found 73% of Americans support federal funding for paid family and medical leave. And those familiar with elements in the Build Back Better Act such as paid leave, there was greater approval of the plan overall.

Democrats slashed their $3.5 trillion bill to about $2 trillion, and paid leave is one program at risk of being reduced. MPs have acknowledged there are several proposals on the table. While some Democrats continue to press President Joe Biden for “strong” paid leave provisions, it could be reduced to four weeks and include an income cap, according to sources familiar with the talks.

The terms of paid family and medical leave in the original proposal would allow US workers to take up to 12 weeks for a new baby as well as time paid for serious illness or to care for a sick family member. Workers will also get some paid days of mourning. The number of workers on leave will be paid based on how much they earn each week. Most workers can receive two-thirds of their current wages while on leave, with lower-wage workers getting closer to their normal pay.

For Kris Garcia, paid leave meant being able to be with her father for surgery, not having to discuss removing life support over the phone and not being suspended from work for taking up too much time due to complications with funeral arrangements — causing further financial setbacks.

For Cinthia Alaniz, that means not being alone at home caring for five children including newborn twins just days after undergoing an emergency C-section as her husband does not have paternity leave.

If passed, it would be the first national move on worker leave in the US in nearly 30 years, far surpassing the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which requires eligible employers with more than 50 employees to provide up to 12 months of unpaid leave. week. .

“What we have is a kind of patchwork system of employers voluntarily offering paid leave to workers to varying degrees, and also a patchwork of state laws that require workers to offer them,” said Michelle Long, Senior Policy Analyst at Policy. Women’s Health. team at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “There are a lot of workers today who don’t have access to paid leave.”

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Nine states and the District of Columbia have enacted their own paid family leave programs. Among private sector workers, only about 21% have access to paid family leave through their employers, and it is less likely to be available to low-income workers. Twelve states and D.C. has passed the paid sick leave law.

The current federal proposal would allow states and companies that already have eligible programs to retain them, with some of the costs reimbursed. The plan will also provide money to small businesses to offset the costs of the new program.

“In states where there are paid leave programs by the state, female labor force participation increased when this policy came into effect, and that’s because it gives parents the opportunity to work,” said Alix Gould-Werth, of Washington. Center for Equitable Growth. He argued it could help address the labor shortage the country is currently facing.

Changes at the state level have helped to break up opposition to the idea, Democrats say.

“We have the data, we have the track record, we’re starting to get a consensus in the business community that this is good for the country, for their benefit, and for the economy,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, of the New York Democrat.

In states that have paid leave programs, research has shown that it increases worker productivity and reduces turnover and associated costs, Long said.

Even without a federal paid leave program, there has been a surge in companies offering paid family and medical leave between 2016 and 2020 and newer data could move higher with the pandemic. A tax law passed in 2017 creates a federal tax credit for employers who offer paid family and medical leave to employees.

But forcing companies to meet government criteria could lead to more rigid and less generous policies, said Rachel Greszler, a researcher at the Heritage Foundation.

“There are more flexible policies out there, and I think that’s what’s missing when you have them through a one-size-fits-all program,” Greszler said. “Yes, there are some workers out there who don’t currently have access who will gain access through this, but there are a lot of cases where people who don’t have access will still be prevented under this program.”

Greszler also anticipates the national paid leave program will cost significantly more than current estimates, while not going as far as expected. At the same time, he said a large part of the taxpayer’s dollar windfall would still go to big corporations.

With the Senate split 50-50, Democrats need every member of their caucus to support the reconciliation bill. As some Democrats have raised alarms over the price tag, lawmakers are negotiating what to include in the final legislation. But Democrats appear optimistic about approaching a deal. No Republican lawmaker supports the plan.

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