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Could Universal Paid Family Leave Be On the Horizon? (And Why You Should Care.)

When her now-nine-year-old son was born, Vicki Shabo worked at a corporate law firm, and her paid leave was actually pretty generous—so she was surprised that even in those ideal circumstances, the transition back to work was one of the hardest of her life. The experience inspired her to take a position at the National Partnership for Women and Families, where, as vice president, she fights for women who don’t have the financial flexibility and time with a new baby that she enjoyed. As she explains, “This is a gender equality issue, an economic security issue, a competitiveness issue and—at the most basic level—a human issue. We all have families. We all get sick. We live in the wealthiest country in the world and there is no reason whatsoever that we should not have a basic paid leave standard.”

Last year, we mined the incredible Jessica Shortall for a state of affairs on family leave in the United States, but with the new regime in Washington, we had plenty of new questions about the changes we may see. The new state of affairs is simultaneously dismal and hopeful, Shabo says: In a nutshell, the progressives who would support bills for federally mandated family leave lack the majorities to pass legislation, but public polling suggests the kind of cultural shift that would make such legislation popular is well underway—even among conservatives. Shabo, who testifies frequently before Congress on this issue, has thrown her weight behind the FAMILY Act (the Family And Medical Insurance Leave Act), which would establish a federal program for paid family leave. Here, she breaks down what the bill would mean for families, and what we can do to support it:

A Q&A with Vicki Shabo

Q

Can you tell us a little bit about the FAMILY Act and the major players at work here?

A

The FAMILY Act is the leading paid family and medical leave proposal in Congress. The FAMILY Act would establish an affordable, comprehensive, and sustainable paid family and medical leave program that would allow all American workers–no matter where they live, who they work for, or what job they hold—to receive a portion of their wages when they need up to twelve weeks away from work to deal with serious personal or family illness, or to care for a new child. The plan is modeled on successful programs already in place in California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and (soon) New York.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut first introduced the bill in 2013, and they continue to be the lead champions of the legislation. When they reintroduced it this February, with more co-sponsors in the Senate and more original co-sponsors in the House than the proposal has ever had, it signaled growing support for the legislation among lawmakers, workers, businesses, advocates, and voters. Fans in the Senate run the gamut from conservative Democrat Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota to progressive Bernie Sanders. Although the proposal still does not have any Republican members of Congress as co-sponsors, public opinion among Republican voters is strongly favorable. In our November 2016 poll, two-thirds of voters said they favor a national paid family and medical leave law like the FAMILY Act. With support like that, we hope it is only a matter of time, momentum, and education before this bill gains bipartisan support in Congress.

We often hear that businesses will oppose a national paid leave law, but this proposal has the support of a growing number of companies, including Patagonia, Levi Strauss & Co., Eileen Fisher, Spotify, and Uncommon Goods. Business-leader supporters of the bill range from an executive at Morgan Stanley to the CEO of YouTube and the Chief Learning Officer at SAP. And it isn’t just big businesses that are supportive. Seventy percent of smaller businesses in a recent nationally representative poll said they support the FAMILY Act, too.

Q

Is it reasonable to think that the FAMILY Act could ever get the Republican support it would need to pass with the majorities as they stand?

A

This is hard to answer in this highly unusual and unpredictable political climate. It won’t shock anyone that conventional wisdom would suggest we need a Democratic Senate, House or president (or maybe even all three) to pass a bill like the FAMILY Act, notwithstanding the high levels of bipartisan agreement and public support.

But we are living in strange times. Conventional wisdom would have predicted a different outcome in the presidential election. Conventional wisdom would have predicted a Day 1 repeal of the ACA, rather than a deep intra-party split that led to paralysis and (so far) the undoing of “repeal and replace.” Conventional wisdom might have suggested an easy confirmation for President Trump’s original choice for labor secretary. None of those things happened. If lawmakers look at what working women – all people, really – and their families need, they will figure out how to get paid leave done.

“The FAMILY Act reinforces shared responsibility and earned benefits, and it promotes economic independence. All of those are virtues that both Democrats and Republicans value.”

We are living in very interesting times when it comes to paid leave. The FAMILY Act is an approach that is reasonable and effective. It isn’t an overly generous program, nor is it a bare bones one. It is funded responsibly and sustainably, yet it still provides widespread coverage and interrupts the status quo—there are currently vast disparities in access to paid leave because of the “boss lottery.” The FAMILY Act reinforces shared responsibility and earned benefits, and it promotes economic independence. All of those are virtues that both Democrats and Republicans value. And the FAMILY Act helps small businesses rather than burdening them.

If traditional opponents of paid family and medical leave could look past knee-jerk ideology to see the virtues of this approach, I think we could be having a very different conversation and the outlook for passage could improve dramatically.

Q

How is the current Congress and administration thinking about family leave?

A

The good news is that more members of Congress and lawmakers are talking about paid family and medical leave and beginning to define the nation’s challenge in similar terms—even if their solutions differ. Champions for working families have taken action to advance comprehensive paid family and medical leave by reintroducing the FAMILY Act with record support. They continue to call on their colleagues and the president to support the bill because it is a strong, tested policy (check out a recent news conference here). One other measure–the Strong Families Act–has been introduced, but it would do nothing to guarantee paid leave, and the “boss lottery,” in which workers’ access to paid leave depends solely on employers’ policies, would continue.

“Eighty-two percent of 2016 voters—of all political stripes—said it’s important for the president and Congress to consider a national paid family and medical leave law.”

President Trump says he and his administration have a plan to address the nation’s paid leave crisis, but he has not released details and what he described during the campaign—maternity leave just for birth mothers, only for six weeks, and achieved by robbing existing unemployment insurance funds—would do more harm than good by benefitting some workers over others. Eighty-two percent of 2016 voters—of all political stripes—said it’s important for the president and Congress to consider a national paid family and medical leave law. If the president truly cares about this issue, he will support an affordable, comprehensive and sustainable plan like the FAMILY Act.

Q

What nuances do we need to get right to make sure something like the FAMILY Act is effective in practice? How are you tailoring the bill to make it work for Americans culturally?

A

At the National Partnership for Women & Families, we often say we need a national paid leave plan that “checks all the boxes” of need that the country’s workers and families, businesses and the economy have. In order to create a system that truly works for everyone and establishes the kind of standard we need, any policy must: be affordable for workers, employers and the government; inclusive of all working people and a modern definition of “family;” provide a substantial amount of leave (at least twelve weeks) regardless of gender or reason for needing leave; cover a comprehensive range of needs, including parental, family, and personal medical leave; and be secure by protecting workers against retaliation. The FAMILY Act meets these criteria.

We need to help Americans—who tend to be more individualistic than people in other countries and more sensitive to taxes and government intervention in employer-employee relationships—understand that the FAMILY Act is sustainable and responsible way to provide people a baseline of support that will foster economic independence and opportunity. It would also help to establish norms around caregiving, especially with respect to both women and men needing and taking paid leave.

“We need to overcome a different aspect of individualism, which is the fiction that the work-family challenges we each face are individual struggles to be solved on our own on a case-by-case basis. That’s just not true.”

We also need to overcome a different aspect of individualism, which is the fiction that the work-family challenges we each face are individual struggles to be solved on our own on a case-by-case basis. That’s just not true. My son’s birth came in close succession to a neighbor’s cancer diagnosis and another neighbor’s military deployment. In each case, the status quo required people in each of our respective households to cobble together critical time away from our jobs. It doesn’t have to be this way. The FAMILY Act provides a framework for change. And we will be a stronger country when we acknowledge that we share more similarities than differences when it comes to caring for ourselves and our loved ones.

Q

Of the five states that offer paid sick leave, only California also offers publicly funded maternity leave. Can you explain how it works?

A

There are significant differences between paid sick leave and paid family and medical leave (a simple explainer is here). Paid family and medical leave refers to longer periods of time off—partially or fully paid—taken for a serious personal or family illness or medical conditions, including pregnancy or childbirth. Some employers provide this leave. In addition, workers in four states have, or will soon have, access to paid family and medical leave through state-administered programs.

Paid sick time or “paid sick days” refers to shorter periods of time off—fully paid—that workers can take to recover from common short-term illnesses or health issues, such as the flu, or for preventive care. The most effective paid sick days policies allow workers to use this time to care for a sick child or loved one too. Right now, nearly 40 jurisdictions across the country (including seven states) guarantee, or will soon guarantee, paid sick days.

Both paid sick days and paid family and medical leave are critical for the health and well-being of working people and their families. California is actually the only state that currently guarantees both, and it paves the way for the national standards we need. People should not have to choose between their jobs and their health or a family member’s health—no matter the severity of the condition.

Q

Will the FAMILY Act address work-family balance issues beyond leave, like on-site childcare, or flexible work hours?

A

No. The FAMILY Act is only one piece of a comprehensive set of policies we need to ensure working people have access to good and decent-paying jobs, the support they need to stay and advance in their careers, and fair and nondiscriminatory treatment at work. These policies include affordable childcare and predictable schedules, but also fair pay, paid sick days, protections for pregnant workers, and comprehensive reproductive health care.

Q

How can we support the passage of the FAMILY Act?

A

Members of Congress need to hear from their constituents that demand for a national paid family and medical leave law in this country is real—and that not just any policy will do. People can send messages to their representatives by going to NationalPartnership.org/FAMILYAct, or via Twitter at WeTweet.org/paidleave. If you work for or lead a company that might consider joining others in endorsing the FAMILY Act, that would make a big difference too.

You can also help lift up the absurd consequences of America’s status quo. We produced a fun PSA earlier this year called, A Long Five Years, available here.

Q

Do you have any advice for people navigating existing family leave policies while we push to pass the FAMILY Act?

A

It is important for people to know their rights to family and medical leave. We have a few great resources, including our guide to unpaid, job-protected leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, and our Expecting Better report, which summarizes state laws that support expecting and new parents in all fifty states and D.C.

Beyond knowing your rights, also make sure you know the policies at your workplace before you have a need for paid leave. If you’re in a position to improve policies within your own workplace—or to advocate for your company to speak out on policy—please do! This kind of advocacy makes a big difference in the national conversation.

Q

What other National Partnership for Women & Families initiatives should we be aware of right now?

A

We work at the federal and state levels to improve access to fair and equal pay, accommodations for pregnant workers, and paid sick days. We are also hard at work trying to protect women’s access to reproductive rights and care, and all people’s access to quality, affordable health care. We work with policymakers, private sector leaders, advocacy organizations, researchers, and the media to promote our policy agenda.

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