Progressive groups mount largest ever campaign for paid family leave law

A coalition of women’s, family and progressive groups will announce Tuesday that they’re mounting the largest ever campaign to get Congress to enact a paid family and medical leave law.

The United States is the only industrial nation without a national paid leave law. But the campaign’s leaders are voicing optimism about their chances of changing the situation. With national elections next year, members of Congress are feeling pressure to embrace such a widely popular idea. And the Trump White House – eager to rack up a family-friendly accomplishment -– is signaling it wants a paid leave law enacted.

A big problem, however, is friction over how to finance paid leave – Democrats and family groups generally want employers to help finance leave, while Republicans and business generally want workers to shoulder 100% of the cost.

Groups in the new campaign include Family Values at Work, the National Partnership for Women and Families, the Center for American Progress, a Better Balance, Moms Rising, and several labor unions. Paid Leave for All, the newly formed group spearheading the campaign, has thrown its weight behind the proposed Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (Family Act), which would enable workers to take up to 12 weeks of paid leave for a pregnancy, the birth or adoption of a child, a worker’s own serious illness, or caring for a seriously ill family member.

The Family Act would replace 66% of wages, capped at $4,000 a month. It is sponsored in the House by Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat, and in the Senate by Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat.

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Only 19% of workers in the US have access to paid family leave through their employer. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, enacted in 1993, workers can take 12 weeks of unpaid leave, but many don’t use the law’s provisions because they can’t afford to take off unpaid.

“Nearly one in four pregnant employees goes back to work within two weeks of giving birth – this is a scandal” said Ellen Bravo, co-director of Family Values at Work. “There’s significant evidence showing that paid leave helps women stay employed and increases their pay.”

This Thursday, the White House will hold what it calls a “summit on paid leave”. President Trump said in September, “I was the first president to propose nationwide paid family leave in my budget. Very important.” Ivanka Trump, who is spearheading the administration’s effort, said recently, “Never before has this issue had so much support and momentum, on both sides of the aisle.” The White House has signaled it would back whichever proposal has the best chance of advancing.

Bravo said the White House summit was designed “to divert attention from this administration’s anti-family policies – the images of children wrenched from their families, the cuts in food stamps, school lunches and health care.”

The Family Act would finance leave by having employers and employees each make payroll contributions of 0.2% of an employee’s wages (2 cents for every $10 of wages). Marco Rubio and several other Republican senators have proposed financing parental leave by letting workers take money from their Social Security accounts (and then delaying when those workers receive Social Security benefits by several months). Senator Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican, and Senator Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona Democrat, have proposed letting workers take an advance of up to $5,000 from their child tax credit upon the birth of adoption of a child.

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Senator Sinema said their bill “does not increase taxes, creates no new entitlements, includes no new mandates on employers, and does not impact Social Security.”

The new paid leave coalition criticize the Rubio and Cassidy-Sinema approaches as hugely inadequate, noting that they apply only to birth and adoption, and not when workers or their loved ones get seriously ill. Dawn Huckelbridge, the director of Paid Leave for All, said. “These are called paid leave, but they’re not paid leave at all. They’re being paid for by the workers. They’re being taken out of retirement benefits or out of the child tax credit.”

“The occupant of the White House says I’m the champion of paid leave,” Bravo added. “What he means is not only not paid leave, it leaves out three quarters of the people who need it and there’s too little money for those who need it.” She said the Cassidy-Sinema plan isn’t paid leave, but a loan. “It robs Paulette to pay Paulette,” Bravo said. “You can have some money to take care of a kid, but not when you get cancer or have a heart condition or get hit by a car, and not if a member of your family gets cancer or gets hit by a car and not if your parents have a stroke and need you.”

Family advocates are proud that eight states and the District of Columbia have enacted paid leave laws. But the United State Chamber of Commerce is unhappy about the patchwork that has developed.

Marc Freedman, the Chamber’s vice-president for workplace policy, says many people are surprised the Chamber supports a nationwide paid leave law, although it wants one financed by employees, not employers. “Like California’s,” Freedman said. He said corporations that “are offering these benefits are getting chewed up by the patchwork effects of these state and local regulations.” He voiced concern that the Family Act would still allow a patchwork by letting states adopt more generous leave policies than the national law calls for.

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