Steps Forward for Paid Leave

Political candidates on both sides of the aisle are now speaking out in support of expanding access to paid leave. This alone is progress.

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This month, Donald Trump became the first Republican presidential nominee to release a paid maternity leave plan. Trump’s plan guarantees six weeks of paid leave to mothers who do not already receive paid leave from their employer. According to one of Trump’s aides, the plan would be paid for by eliminating unemployment insurance fraud.

In response to the release of his plan, Trump has received criticism that only mothers can apply, leaving fathers and other caregivers out completely. Further, a document on Trump’s campaign website states that same-sex couples would receive this benefit only if their marriage is "recognized under state law," language that could effectively bar any unmarried parent. As Working Mother Media Editorial Director Jennifer Owens explains to the Huffington Post, with Trump’s plan, “there’s this implication that parenting is a mother job and not a father job. That is just old-fashioned thinking.” In addition to excluding fathers, the plan also does not apply to those who have to care for a family member with a serious illness.

Ben Gitis, the director of labor market policy at the American Action Forum, a conservative think tank also commented on the shortcomings of Trump’s plan. A policy that only includes maternity leave “misses a lot of reasons men would need to take time off,” said Gitis. These would include “medical issues or if you have to care for an ill child or ill, elderly parents.”  

Last month, Gitis offered up his own proposal for how the United States could implement paid maternity, paternity, and caregiver leave. Gitis’ plan offers up to 12 weeks of paid leave to workers with an annual income below $28,000, making it available only to low-income families. Modeled after the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), the total benefit would be based on household income.  On AAF’s website, Gitis explains, “the entire 12-week benefit available to workers would be equivalent to a fixed percentage of their household income; as household income rises, so would the benefit at a constant rate.” Eligible workers taking 12 weeks off would receive on average $2,200, and “many” (according to Gitis) would receive as much as $3,359. The amount a worker could claim would also depend on how many weeks he or she was away from work.

The most surprising part of Gitis’ plan, which he has dubbed the Earned Income Leave Benefit, is that it resembles an entitlement ― a government benefit for lower-income Americans. Given that few conservatives support entitlement spending, it’s not surprising that this plan is facing criticism. Conservative groups such as Club for Growth and FreedomWorks have already criticized the plan as being “social engineering through the tax code” or “too costly.”

There are questions to be answered about the Earned Income Leave Benefit plan. Gitis hasn’t yet explained how the U.S. would pay for such a benefit or whether it would be administered as a tax credit or by a check from the government. In his plan’s defense, Gitis notes that his proposal is a far cheaper plan for the United States than the FAMILY Act ― the main Democratic proposal in Congress. He estimates the plan would cost between $1.5 billion and $18 billion per year, depending on how many people collected. Meanwhile, he says the FAMILY Act would cost at least $85.9 billion per year, although supporters such as the National Partnership for Women, say this number is exaggerated.

It is also important to note that Gitis’ proposal leaves out workers in the middle-class, who also have families to care for but lack a policy that guarantees them paid family leave. In support of the need for all workers to have paid leave, Anne-Marie Slaughter cites research in her book “Unfinished Business,” showing that flexible hours and generous family leave policies benefit both companies and employees. As Slaughter states in her book, “In general, your boss wants you to be the best employee you can be, and that means making you a happy employee.”

The first serious Republican plan came last fall when Marco Rubio distinguished himself as the first GOP presidential candidate to embrace paid family leave as part of his campaign. Unlike Gitis’ approach which would have the government operate a paid leave program, Rubio’s plan advocates giving a 25 percent tax credit to any business that offers between 4 and 12 weeks of paid leave. However, as explained in this Huffington Post article, Rubio’s approach is unlikely to have much of an impact: “It’s just not a lot of money,” Elaine Maag, a senior research associate at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center in Washington, told The Huffington Post. “People who don’t have access to paid leave now, their employers are not typically ready to jump in and provide a new benefit just because they can get a very small tax credit for it. It’s just not how they do business.”

The endorsement of paid leave among Republicans, even on the rhetorical level, represents a positive change. For years considered a progressive issue, this is the first time that political candidates on both sides of the aisle are speaking out in support of expanding access to paid leave, making it so that there is actual policy to debate, rather than a one-sided proposal.

On the left, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) introduced the FAMILY Act on December 12, 2013. This legislation, which is currently stalled, provides up to 12 weeks of paid leave each year to all workers for the birth or adoption of a new child, the serious illness of an immediate family member, or a worker’s own medical condition. Any worker who qualifies for Social Security Disability Benefits, would be eligible to collect benefits up to $4,000 or two-thirds of their monthly income for 12 weeks. The program would be set up like Social Security, with employers and employees each contributing .2 percent of their wages to an insurance fund. This amounts to an average contribution of roughly $2 per person, per week. Also, unlike Gitis’ plan, the FAMILY Act legislation is intended for everyone regardless of income.

Gillibrand and DeLauro aren’t the only Democrats who support paid leave. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both made improving family leave one of the central tenets of their campaign platforms. While Sanders backs the FAMILY Act, Clinton has criticized the approach for increasing taxes on working families. In its provisions, Clinton’s plan closely resembles the FAMILY Act, with 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave and a minimum two-thirds wage replacement rate. However, Clinton’s plan differs from the FAMILY Act in that she proposes taxing the wealthy and corporations to pay for it.

The United States remains the only industrialized nation in the world that does not guarantee its workers paid family leave. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), signed into law by president Bill Clinton in 1993, only requires that employers give unpaid time off. While FMLA was a much-needed step in the right direction at the time, it was only a baby step. Only about half of the workforce qualifies for it, and many more simply cannot afford to take advantage of it because the leave is unpaid.

Today, it is clear that FMLA has fallen short of addressing the needs of contemporary American families. More must be done to to enable workers across the gender spectrum to care for their loved ones without risking their jobs. Research has shown that adopting paid family leave programs in the U.S. has both health and economic benefits. While imperfect and far from complete, both Trump’s and AAF’s recent proposals expand the discussion on paid leave policy, broadening it to both sides of the aisle. This alone is another step in the right direction.

Author:

Lara Burt is a summer 2016 intern with New America’s Family-Centered Social Policy program.