The Trend Towards Federal Paid Family Leave Policy

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In the highly partisan environment of the 116th Congress, the outlook for agreement on most issues appears bleak. Yet there is at least one proposal that has garnered approval from Republicans, Democrats, and the administration: federal paid family leave.

In general, paid family leave proposals cover employees that need to take time off to deal with a serious health issue of their own, health conditions of family members, or to take care of a new child. One potential reason that a federal paid family leave law has received so much attention recently is that it is overwhelmingly popular among Americans. According to Pew Research, 85% of Americans surveyed believe that workers should receive paid leave to deal with their own serious health conditions, and 82% of Americans believe mothers should receive paid maternity leave following the birth or adoption of a child. Furthermore, a majority of paid leave supporters believe that employers, as opposed to the government, should finance leave for their employees. Instituting a federal paid leave policy would also expand coverage to a nontrivial number of workers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 16% of workers currently have access to paid leave benefits. While securing paid family leave is not seen as high priority compared to other issues (such as lowering health care costs or improving education) it is one that could feature in the congressional agenda; if not this session, perhaps in the near future.

There is very little federal law that pertains to family leave. Although the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave, all of the existing paid leave laws have been implemented at the state level. To date, six states and Washington D.C. have created their own Paid Family Leave Insurance programs. All of these states fund their programs through payroll taxes. In most states, employees pay a small payroll tax. In a select few states–such as Massachusetts and Washington–leave is financed through a combination of employer and employee payroll contributions. In Washington D.C., employers are entirely responsible for funding paid leave for their employees. The program itself often functions like an unemployment insurance program, with workers paying into a pool of funds that is distributed to those who need it. The benefit levels differ across states, with Washington D.C. offering up to 90% of a worker’s average weekly wage in some cases. Another policy difference is the length of paid family leave provided. On the shorter end, Rhode Island’s program offers four weeks. On the longer end, Massachusetts and New York plan to offer 12 weeks of paid leave when they are fully implemented. In 2019, many more states legislatures will consider paid family leave legislation, including some more conservative states such as Indiana, Oklahoma, and Nebraska.

On the federal level, both Democrats and Republicans have put forth their own separate policy proposals to create paid family leave programs. In February, Senator and 2020 presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) reintroduced the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act. The FAMILY Act would create a family leave insurance under which eligible employees could earn up to 66% of their monthly wages for up to 12 weeks, funded through employee and employer payroll contributions of about $2.00 per week for an average worker. Sen. Gillibrand’s bill has attracted 34 cosponsors, and the companion bill in the House has 179 cosponsors, all of which are Democrats. Although Republicans support the idea of paid family leave, they differ from their Democratic counterparts on how it should be funded; Democrats believe the costs should be split between employers and employees, while Republicans prefer proposals that are not funded through employer or government contributions. A month after Sen. Gillibrand reintroduced the FAMILY Act, Senators Joni Ernst (R-IA) and Mike Lee (R-UT) proposed their own program, the CRADLE Act, which is limited to parental leave and would “enable parents to stay home with their newborns without creating a massive mandated government program.” Even more recently, Senators Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) introduced the New Parents Act. Both the CRADLE Act and the New Parents Act would allow parents to take up to three months of paid leave by delaying their Social Security Benefits for up to six months. Democrats have criticized proposals like these for their narrowness–in their opinion, these proposals fail to account for workers that need paid leave to take care of serious health conditions. Furthermore, Democrats claim that these policies would shrink retirement benefits. According to one study published by the Urban Institute, a parent that withdraws Social Security funds early might experience a 3-10% loss of benefits over their lifetime.

Debate over family leave is not limited to Congress – it has also been a topic of discussion in the White House. Ivanka Trump is known to be an outspoken proponent of paid parental leave, having previously met with key legislators to advocate for policy solutions. Even President Trump’s FY2020 budget proposal contains language encouraging states to create their own paid parental leave programs using the Unemployment Insurance system as a framework.

Although support for paid family leave has never been greater, it is unclear whether Congress can muster up the votes to pass legislation through both the House and the Senate. On the one hand, previous federal inaction makes the possibility of passing anything into law appear slim; Sen. Gillibrand has reintroduced the FAMILY Act at every single legislative session since 2013. But considering that the United States is the only industrialized country that does not provide paid family leave to its citizens, it appears that there could be room for bipartisan compromise. In the era of Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ rhetoric, closing the gap between the U.S. and other countries when it comes to paid leave might fit the bill.

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