Adrienne Schweer: Americans want paid family leave. Congress may finally be ready to deal
Two developments in the last month signal potential new life for a long-popular policy idea: creating a national paid family leave program.
First, two prominent Democrats — Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut — reintroduced the FAMILY Act, which would provide working Americans up to 12 weeks of paid leave for the birth or adoption of a new child; to care for a sick loved one; or to recover if an injury or illness requires an extended absence from work. The bill has wide-ranging support among Democrats, but this is the seventh year in a row it has been introduced without a Republican co-sponsor.
Second, a handful of prominent Republicans — including Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Joni Ernst of Iowa, and Mike Lee of Utah, along with presidential senior adviser and paid family leave advocate Ivanka Trump — met to discuss how to move forward on this topic.
It would be easy to look at these developments as another example of the parties retreating to their corners and touting competing solutions, and perhaps in today’s Washington a healthy dose of skepticism is appropriate.
But to do so misses three key insights. First, the sheer fact that a handful of Republicans are meeting to work together on this issue is a milestone.
Second, federal policymakers across the political spectrum support the concept of a national paid family leave program. In fact, in the last Congress, a record 207 members signed on to some form of paid leave legislation, and this Congress is already on track to beat that number.
Third, and most importantly, the policy solutions are starting to sound more and more similar. While not trying to sugarcoat real differences, it’s time to celebrate the attention being given to this critical issue and areas of policy agreement that might pave the way toward bipartisan support for action.
Specifically, here is where we see Republicans and Democrats beginning to agree:
Most caregivers are women, but there is broad agreement that gender equity is key. Both parties now propose maternity and paternity leave, a dramatic shift from conversations that solely focused on moms.
The current federal policy, the 25-year-old Family and Medical Leave Act, offers 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Many plans are now considering up to 12 weeks of paid leave. Past proposals have been far skimpier.
Focus on working families
Democrats and Republicans alike are proposing policies designed to reach Americans who struggle to make ends meet. There is agreement to prioritize policies that focus benefits that are accessible on low- and middle-income families.
Any national plan is going to have to answer some essential questions: Who will be covered, what will the benefit be, how will the program be structured, and how to pay for it? But on some of these, common ground already exists. It’s time for collaboration and compromise to fill in the gaps.
Why make this push now? The real-world need of America’s workers is beginning to align with political benefit and political will for both parties in a way that makes action possible.
America simply can’t wait any longer. As an Axios report detailed last week, women now outpace men in educational achievement, yet their participation in the workforce is stagnant or even declining. And young people are waiting longer to have children, citing economic insecurity and lack of paid parental leave as key reasons.
At a time when only 15 percent of American workers have access to a paid leave benefit, and very few hourly-wage workers receive paid leave, we are beyond asking why.
What’s more, Americans want national paid family leave. A recent poll found 84 percent of voters support a national policy. Instituting paid family leave will support economic growth, foster family formation, and keep America globally competitive. It’s a political winner.
We have momentum toward making a monumental difference for working families through some type of national paid family leave program. The only ingredient missing, and maybe not for long, is bipartisan collaboration.