President Donald Trump’s proposed budget will win over conservatives with its calls to slash spending on anti-poverty programs. But Trump is also proposing something Republicans have long resisted: requiring employers to provide paid family leave to workers after the birth or adoption of a child.
Trump’s budget proposal, which the White House outlined on Tuesday, includes funding for a program that gives fathers and mothers six weeks of paid time off to care for a new child. It’s expected to cost $25 billion over 10 years and would benefit 1.3 million caregivers, according to the Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget. The paid leave would be provided through unemployment insurance programs at the state level, so each state would need to find a way to pay for it.
“It’s a groundbreaking thing,” Mulvaney said in a Monday press briefing.
It would, in fact, be a groundbreaking thing if Trump could get enough support from Republicans in Congress. The United States remains the only industrialized nation in the world that doesn’t guarantee paid family leave to working parents, and momentum has been building for that to change.
In recent years, California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New York, and Washington, DC, have all passed laws requiring employers to offer some sort of paid leave benefit to workers. And it’s an issue that Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, championed on the campaign trail.
Trump’s plan would face a tall hurdle in Congress. Most conservative lawmakers recoil at the thought of forcing employers to do anything. Still, some Republicans have proposed modest family leave bills, and even businesses groups that have balked at the idea of requiring paid time off are indicating that they are willing to come up with an alternative.
The fact that a Republican president wants to create a national paid-leave program is significant. The biggest challenge for Trump: What Republicans in Congress seem willing to give is nothing close to what the White House wants.
How Trump’s family leave plan might work
The White House has released few specifics about Trump’s vision for a paid family leave law, but here is what we know: It would require all employers to offer six weeks of leave to both mothers and fathers after the birth or adoption of a child, and it would be administered through state unemployment insurance systems.
If the paid-leave plan works the same way as unemployment insurance, then workers who prepare to take time off to care for a child would need to apply for benefits the same way laid-off workers apply for unemployment funds. (This is essentially how California’s statewide paid family leave plan works, although it uses statewide disability insurance rather than unemployment insurance.)
It’s not clear what percentage of a worker’s wages will be paid during those six weeks off. The amount paid out will be capped for high-income earners, according to the Washington Post, but it’s still unclear what the cutoff would be.
The most mysterious part of the plan is how Trump would pay for it. When Hillary Clinton proposed a more generous paid family leave plan on the campaign trail, her policy proposal estimated that offering workers 12 weeks of leave at two-thirds of their regular pay would cost $300 billion over 10 years. The $25 billion Trump’s budget sets aside is less than one-tenth of that amount.
On Monday, Mulvaney said the benefit would be funded mostly through unemployment insurance programs in each state, which would put the burden of the cost on state governments. Republicans in Congress have traditionally fought to eliminate “unfunded mandates” — federal laws and regulations that impose costs on states — but Trump’s plan would impose a new one.
Policy experts said it’s a good sign that the president wants to ensure that American workers get paid time off, but they have differing opinions on how practical his plan will be.
Angela Rachidi, a poverty studies researcher at the conservative America Enterprise Institute, thinks that the benefit should only be provided to lower-income workers, who are the least likely to work at companies that provide it. In the private sector, white-collar professionals are far more likely to get paid time off than blue-collar workers, especially when compared to construction and hospitality workers, according to the Pew Research Center.
“I do think this is an issue Republicans need to get behind,” says Rachidi, pointing out that research shows that offering paid leave keeps more women in the workforce and has health benefits for mothers and newborns.
Sherry Leiwant, co-president of A Better Balance, a family leave organization that has lobbied for paid family leave on the state level, says the president’s proposal to provide working parents with six weeks of leave is an “admirable” idea. However, she thinks it doesn’t go far enough, and doubts that Republicans would support it. “I’m very skeptical that this is something that could really happen,” says Leiwant, whose organization helped draft many of the state paid-leave laws.
Republicans have their own vision
The paid family leave plan stands out from the rest of Trump’s budget, which focuses more on cutting the social safety net — including disability insurance, Medicaid, and food stamps — than weaving a new one.
Both the cuts and the family leave program, though, are only possible if Congress goes along. And while Republicans in Congress are beginning to offer their own plans on paid family leave, with some backing from powerful business groups, their plans have been much more modest in scope than Trump’s. They typically provide a small incentive for employers to voluntarily offer paid leave, rather than requiring it.
Rep. Mimi Walters (R-CA) is reportedly drafting a bill that will allow businesses to avoid complying with multiple paid-leave laws in different states if they offer a minimum benefit to all their employees, no matter where they live. Employees could use the time off if they are sick or caring for a child or relative.
The idea is that the benefit must be as generous as the ones employees could get at the state level, according to one of the business groups lobbying for the bill, though a paid-leave advocate believes it will end up being less generous than state standards.
While only five states have passed laws requiring paid leave for employees, many of them are states with some of the most workers and businesses (like New York and California).
“It’s difficult to navigate all those different laws,” says Lisa Horn, director of congressional affairs for Society of Human Resource Management, which represents thousands of HR managers in more than 100 countries. The group opposes creating a national mandate for paid leave, and has been lobbying for the bill Walters is drafting. (Walters’s press secretary did not respond to an email request for an interview.)
The upside to such a bill is that it would expand benefits to some workers in states without paid leave laws. It also includes paid time off for illnesses and to care for relatives, which Trump’s proposal doesn't.
The major shortcoming, of course, is that it lets employers choose whether to participate or not, and does nothing for all the American workers in states without paid leave laws who work at companies that don’t opt in. Large businesses, who are more likely to have locations in multiple states, already are more likely to offer paid leave to their workers than smaller companies.
“It needs to cover all workers and not only workers who have an employer who can afford to [offer the benefit],” says Rachidi.
Another Republican idea comes from Sen. Deb Fischer, a Nebraska Republican, who introduced the Strong Families Act in February. Under the bill, companies that offered at least two weeks of paid leave could get a tax credit for 25 percent of the cost. While it’s certainly better than nothing, it would hardly change much, since it’s another voluntary measure. Leiwant, from A Better Balance, thinks this would likely end up giving a tax break to employers who already provide paid time off, and would do little to motivate businesses to start offering the benefit.
“I think it’s a bad use of taxpayer money,” she says.
The US Chamber of Commerce, one of the nation’s most powerful business groups, could support a national solution, a spokesperson said. They didn’t immediately bash Trump’s plan, but were cautious: “Obviously, the key to a workable plan is in the details and we look forward to working with the administration to ensure that we come up with a proposal that works for American families and businesses."
How the plan could backfire
Trump’s plan has two big weaknesses. His budget doesn’t seem to come close to covering the cost. And Democrats, who support nationwide family leave, are reluctant to work with him.
Ultimately, under Trump’s plan, it would be up to states to pay for the benefit through their unemployment insurance programs. That would be a huge burden to the unemployment programs, which already face financial problems. It would likely require states to raise unemployment insurance taxes on employers, something that will not be received well in many states.
“Increasing taxes raises a lot of concerns for us,” says Horn. “The taxes might be small at first, but it would likely need to be increased as more people draw the benefit.”
Another hurdle would be to get Democrats on board. To get the budget through the Senate, Trump’s plan would need 60 votes, and there are only 52 Republicans in the chamber. Democrats have also faced pressure from their base to oppose Trump’s legislative agenda on every front, and would have to weigh that opposition against the possibility of cooperating with him.
Then there’s the problem that Democrats and progressive groups don’t think Trump’s plan goes far enough. What they want is some version of the FAMILY Act, which Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, introduced in March. The bill offers workers up to 12 weeks off with up to 66 percent of their wages covered for family and medical leave. It would be paid for with a tax levied on workers and employers (about 2 cents each for every $10 paid in wages).
Still, Gillibrand seemed open to the idea of working with the White House.
“The inclusion of paid leave in the President’s budget is good news and a positive first step forward,” Gillibrand said in a statement. “But, as currently proposed, this plan falls far too many steps short of the realities working families face, and would leave far too many people behind, including seniors, parents with sick children, and even deployed members of the Armed Services.”