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This could be the year federal paid leave finally passes

President Joe Biden’s new plan treats family and medical leave like the priority that it is.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has led the push for paid leave for years.
Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call Inc./Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

The current pandemic — and its disproportionate effects on women and people of color — have underscored a major issue: the dire need for paid family and medical leave in America.

President Joe Biden, by including paid leave in his American Families Plan, is sending a strong message that 2021 should be the year lawmakers finally get something done on the matter.

Biden’s proposal would guarantee 12 weeks of paid leave to new parents; caregivers for a sick family member; survivors of sexual assault, stalking, and domestic violence seeking a safe environment; and people who are ill themselves, allowing workers to recoup between 66 percent to 80 percent of their wages, capped at $4,000 a month. The program is estimated to cost approximately $225 billion across 10 years, and is among those that would be paid for via reforms like an increased tax rate for wealthier individuals. The full 12 weeks of paid leave isn’t expected to be fully available until the 10th year of the program.

Overall, the plan is very similar to the FAMILY Act, which Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) have introduced every year since 2013.

“Nearly a decade ago, I introduced the FAMILY Act to create America’s first national paid family and medical leave policy and I am proud to see President Biden include national paid leave in his American Families Plan,” Gillibrand said in a statement.

Biden’s plan for paid family and medical leave is just one of several policies he’s backed in the American Families Plan, along with expanded child care tax credits and universal pre-K, dedicated to helping people balance the demands they face from work with the need to care for their families and themselves. And it’s an incredibly significant one.

Passage of paid family and medical leave would be a huge step forward for the United States, which is the only industrialized country without some kind of program: Policies in other countries vary from more generous options like the year and a half in fully covered paid leave for new parents that’s offered in Estonia to more limited ones like the five weeks of parental leave provided in Ireland.

And it would bring something most Americans want into fruition: According to a survey conducted in April 2020 by the National Partnership for Women and Families, 75 percent of people support establishing a national paid leave policy.

Currently, nine states and Washington, DC, have approved their own paid family and medical leave programs, though they range in coverage and scope. Plus, some companies offer this support, while many do not. Without a federal mandate, the programs vary greatly: For instance, California offers eight weeks of partial wage replacement for family leave, while New York offers 12.

A lack of federal policy also means that most workers are left out of such protections. About 20 percent of all private sector workers had access to paid family leave before the pandemic, but only 8 percent of low-wage workers — or employees in the bottom quartile of earnings — did. Many low-wage workers, and the majority of the US workforce, are only guaranteed 12 weeks of unpaid leave at this time, a protection approved nearly three decades ago as part of the Family and Medical Leave Act. As the Biden administration noted in its fact sheet, more than 30 million people currently don’t have access to a single sick day.

In the past, paid leave programs have been blocked by Republicans concerned that additional taxes and the implementation of such policies would put an unnecessary burden on companies — including small businesses. Republican paid leave proposals have tried to take various other approaches to the issue. A 2019 GOP proposal from Sens. Joni Ernst (R-IA) and Mike Lee (R-UT) instead called for employees to effectively borrow from their future Social Security benefits to cover leave costs in lieu of levying a new tax, for instance. It also didn’t mandate that companies provide such protections and instead put the onus on individuals to seek out these offerings.

Should Democrats unite behind Biden’s proposal, Republican backing may be irrelevant — as Democrats could then move forward with it via budget reconciliation, which would allow for it to be passed in the Senate without any GOP support. And were Biden’s proposal to succeed, its passage would mark massive progress for how the country treats workers across the board.

“This is the year it absolutely must pass,” says Dawn Huckelbridge, director of the advocacy group Paid Leave for All. “If there’s anything we should have learned from this pandemic, it’s that we need a paid leave policy before a crisis hits.”

Paid leave helps keep people in the workforce — particularly women

The benefits of paid leave programs have been well-established in the states that have implemented them, including in California and New Jersey, where the long-term workplace retention of women who have children has increased since they established these efforts. Such policies are vital for maintaining US competitiveness at a global level, given the gains in workplace participation that they enable.

“Paid leave helps keep people — especially mothers and workers with family caregiving responsibilities — attached to the workforce and helps them earn higher wages, save for retirement, and contribute to the country’s economic productivity,” says Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow on paid leave policy at New America.

As evidenced in the pandemic, women are more likely to be the ones to bear the brunt of caregiving responsibility for children or other family members, and potentially be forced out of the workforce as a result: In the past year, 30 percent of women with kids under the age of 18, compared to 20 percent of men in the same position, said they had taken time off of work because schools or day care for their children were closed due to Covid-19, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll.

As Bryce Covert previously reported for Vox, this discrepancy was especially stark among parents of young children:

Mothers of young children have reduced their work hours four to five times more than fathers during the pandemic. An August analysis found that young mothers were nearly three times more likely than fathers to say they couldn’t work due to school or daycare closures. Among parents whose children are ages two to six, mothers were more than four times as likely to leave the workforce as fathers.

Policies including paid family leave can better help parents and caregivers return to the workplace, though they need to be implemented so wage replacement is actually sufficient to live on, particularly for lower-wage workers. In Biden’s proposal, wage replacement would be to 80 percent for lower-wage workers to ensure that the program provides adequate funds. States like Massachusetts and Washington, too, have replaced 80 and 90 percent of wages for the lowest-paid workers to address this issue.

“Currently without a program, mostly higher-paid workers, workers in large firms, or workers with unions are the most likely to have access to paid family and medical leave,” said University of Massachusetts Boston economist Randy Albelda. “Yet it is low-wage workers — the least likely to receive it — that have the greatest need for income replacement.”

Paid leave programs across states have been found to have other benefits as well, including improving children’s health outcomes, reducing parental participation in social safety net programs, and improving parents’ bonding with children.

The politics of paid leave

A major reason a national paid leave policy has run into roadblocks is the lack of bipartisan agreement over how it should be paid for: While Democrats have historically proposed some form of tax to cover the costs, Republicans have been loath to back such measures. Moderate Democrats, including Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), have previously supported a narrower policy that would basically allow people to be given future child tax credits they’d receive in advance, rather than adding a new tax.

Some of this pushback has centered on how a payroll tax, specifically, would be burdensome for businesses; in the case of Gillibrand and DeLauro’s bill, businesses and workers would respectively see a jump in the tax that they pay on workers’ wages. Biden’s plan, meanwhile, would levy more taxes on wealthy individuals, which Republicans have long opposed, too.

Republicans have also expressed worries that programs like this would affect business productivity and general operations.

Thus far, research suggests that paid leave programs broadly have positive benefits for businesses by reducing the turnover they face, a positive side effect that advocates see as neutralizing other costs that may result.

According to a 2016 study from economists Kelly Bedard and Maya Rossin-Slater, the majority of California employers did not detect any cost losses after implementing the paid leave program.

And as Vox’s German Lopez has reported, more recent research has also found that small businesses in New York experienced minimal harms since the implementation of the state’s paid leave plan:

A recent study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research compared outcomes for smaller businesses in New York, which in 2018 started paid leave, to Pennsylvania, which has no such policy. It found paid leave didn’t hurt employers on any of the metrics surveyed — echoing findings from other US studies.

There’s been no sign this research has swayed Republican lawmakers, suggesting there is likely to be limited, if any, GOP support for Biden’s plan. If Democrats opt to use budget reconciliation for the American Families Plan, they could end up passing paid leave without needing any Republicans, as the reconciliation process circumvents the Senate filibuster, which requires 60 votes to overcome. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, paid family and medical leave is among the proposals that would qualify under the procedural limits of reconciliation.

Reconciliation still needs a simple majority, however, so this approach would require all 50 members of the Democratic caucus to stick together. As of earlier this year, Gillibrand’s FAMILY Act had 37 sponsors total, meaning some members had yet to sign on.

Democratic leaders are already working to push for the bill’s passage. The spotlight on this policy from Biden and other Democratic leaders — including House Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal, who recently touted his backing for a paid leave program — seems to indicate that the party is making this a bigger priority than it has in the past.

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