While Democrats in Congress were able to get a lot done in the last two years, they ended up leaving a number of major policy priorities on the table — including federal paid leave.
Because of opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), a proposal guaranteeing all workers paid parental, medical, and caregiving leave was ultimately dropped from the expansive budget reconciliation bill that Democrats narrowly passed last year. Now, Democrats are trying to keep the fight for paid leave alive — a difficult task given House Republican control and the enduring disagreements the two parties have had over how to pay for the policy.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), a longtime champion of paid leave, is among those pushing to maintain the issue as a Democratic priority. In a letter shared exclusively with Vox and sent to the Biden administration on Thursday, Gillibrand and 15 other senators call for the president to include $547 billion in funding for a 12-week paid leave program in his upcoming 2024 budget.
Gillibrand’s letter reflects the tough position Democrats are in when it comes to passing comprehensive paid leave, particularly since a president’s budget is a messaging document that’s not likely to advance. The hope, however, is that Biden’s potential inclusion of this policy is one of several ways to maintain the momentum on the subject in a split Congress. Short of passing comprehensive legislation, advocates say the administration can issue executive actions that expand leave access to federal contractors, and that Congress could take several steps to modify existing laws to give new unpaid benefits to millions.
Currently, the US is the only industrialized country that doesn’t guarantee workers a single day of paid parental leave or sick leave. This gap disproportionately affects lower-wage workers and workers of color, who are less likely to have such protections from their employers. Overall, 24 percent of all private sector workers currently have paid family leave, while 12 percent of workers making the lowest wages do.
Beyond efforts like this letter, there’s potential for limited progress on the issue, advocates argue. Executive actions from the Biden administration could target federal contractors and give states grant money to research such programs. Congress could also take steps to strengthen unpaid leave guaranteed by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), including passing legislation that would eliminate exceptions to the law’s protections.
“I think there’s real progress we can make this Congress and there are incremental wins,” said Dawn Huckelbridge, the executive director of the advocacy group Paid Leave for All.
The difficult political reality for paid leave
The biggest obstacle to progress on paid leave may be how it’s funded. Although some Republicans — including Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Joni Ernst (R-IA) — have expressed support for some form of paid leave legislation, the two parties have historically disagreed on how to pay for such programs. That gap, ultimately, has proven tough to bridge, and could be the central challenge to getting more done in a split Congress.
Gillibrand’s FAMILY Act, a bill she intends to reintroduce this term, is the main Democratic proposal and would pay for 12 weeks of paid leave via a payroll tax that both companies and workers contribute to. It’s a model that multiple states including California, New York, and New Jersey have used to successfully cover their costs for such programs. Previously, Biden proposed that a paid leave program be paid for via a higher tax rate on wealthier individuals.
Republicans, however, have been loath to add any new taxes, and instead proposed alternative funding mechanisms, like asking people to use Social Security funds they’d otherwise receive down the line. As Alexia Fernández Campbell previously explained for Vox, people who took three months of paid leave now would then have to delay their retirement, and access Social Security three months later than they otherwise would, under a bill from Ernst and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT). A bipartisan plan introduced by Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) would similarly enable parents to take paid leave if they made a trade-off and accepted fewer funds from the child tax credit in future years.
Because Democrats no longer hold the House, paid leave faces even longer odds of moving forward this Congress, since many Republicans are skeptical of expanding any social programs. Any bill would also need at least nine Republicans to sign on in the Senate in order to clear the 60-vote filibuster threshold. Democrats have struggled to build Senate GOP support for paid leave in past sessions, a trend that’s likely to continue this year.
How Democrats could still make progress
Although the prospects for a national paid leave program don’t look great this term, both advocates and Gillibrand’s office see openings. First, as signaled in the letter, lawmakers are urging the Biden administration to continue elevating paid leave as a chief priority, a move that would send a message about the party’s policy platform ahead of the 2024 election.
Vicki Shabo, a fellow at New America and expert on the issue, also notes that the administration could make more concrete policy changes via executive action by requiring federal contractors to offer their workers 12 weeks of paid leave and issuing grants to states to evaluate the impact of these programs. Although action on paid leave has stalled at the federal level, 11 states and Washington, DC, have approved these programs, and additional federal funding could help more states do the research to determine how they could implement them.
In Congress, meanwhile, there’s potential for narrower bills. Gillibrand’s office notes that she’s continuing conversations with Republicans in both the House and the Senate to see if there are areas for bipartisan compromise. A new bipartisan working group in the House is also giving advocates hope that lawmakers could find common ground on changes to the FMLA that would make unpaid leave more generous. Whether GOP members of that working group can get a majority of House Republicans on board with these policies is still uncertain, however.
“There are fixes to the Family and Medical Leave Act that would improve job protections for people,” says Shabo.
The FMLA, which has its 30th anniversary this year, ensures that most workers are able to receive 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a new child or sick family member. That bill, however, doesn’t apply to the 44 percent of workers who work for a small business or part-time.
Shabo notes that Congress could pass legislation, like the Job Protection Act from Rep. Lauren Underwood and Sen. Tina Smith, which would make the law apply to businesses of all sizes, and the Part-Time Workers Bill of Rights from Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), which would make sure part-time workers got more protections. Additionally, lawmakers could weigh other bills, including the Family Medical Leave Modernization Act from Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), which would broaden the definition of “family” so workers could take leave to care for more individuals including a domestic partner, parent-in-law, grandparent, and sibling.
Many of these proposals are driven by Democrats, though a few Republicans, like Ernst, have signaled interest in more targeted reforms, too.
Legislation Ernst has introduced, for instance, could update the law to ensure that all parents can take the full amount of leave it enables. Currently, two parents working for the same employer have to split 12 weeks of unpaid parental leave, a rule that the FAIR Leave Act, a bill she worked on with Sinema, would change.
These proposals, while limited, are all avenues advocates hope Congress will consider in the new term due to the challenges a more comprehensive paid leave bill could face. Even such measures are poised to run up against GOP opposition, however, since Republicans are focused on other policy priorities and have made it clear they believe more generous social programs could harm business interests.