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As Democrats Ditch Paid Leave, Advocates Ask: If Not Now, When?

Oct. 27, 2021, 11:42 PM

Democratic lawmakers’ decision to exclude paid family and medical leave from their expansive federal tax and social spending bill dealt a bitter defeat to policy advocates, who have for decades pushed for creation of such a new entitlement program and are now wondering if their goal will ever be realized.

The jettisoning of paid leave from the framework agreement—a result of intra-party political pressure to reduce the overall package’s cost—leaves millions of workers without long-sought paid time off to care for a new child, a sick family member, or their own major health problem.

While no formal decision has been announced by the White House or congressional leadership, sources familiar with negotiations over the spending package said on Wednesday paid leave won’t be included in the bill.

“This is or was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a policy that touched every family in America in the scariest and happiest of times,” said Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow focused on paid leave policy at the New America think tank. She added she expects advocates are still fighting to get some version of paid leave into the bill “until the ink is dry.”

Absent creation of a federal entitlement, workers remain dependent on benefits voluntarily provided by employers or through programs offered in a handful of states, leaving most low-income workers without access. Only 23% of workers get paid family leave, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Democrats are advancing their spending plan under a budget process that allows them to pass legislation with a simple majority vote in both chambers. That means the bill will be immune from a Republican filibuster in the 50-50 Senate, freeing Democrats from needing to secure Republican votes if their ranks are united.

That special circumstance would have given paid leave supporters and advocates a rare opportunity to enact a new entitlement program while Democrats control the presidency along with the House and Senate, both of which Republicans are targeting to win back in 2022.

Diminishing Proposals

Senate backers of the proposal spoke out against excluding the program.

Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said, “We are not going to allow one or two men to tell millions of women in this country that they can’t have paid leave.” Her colleague, Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), vowed she will fight for paid leave until “the bill is printed.”

House lawmakers had initially proposed an expansive program, calling for 12 weeks of annual paid leave to be available to workers after the birth or adoption of a child, or for their own or a family member’s serious illness.

That plan, which was approved in committee, would have cost approximately $500 billion. It also envisioned a role for state-run programs and employer-sponsored plans, in some cases managed by insurance companies or third-party administrators. But as Democrats and the White House faced internal pressures to slash the total cost of their reconciliation vision, the paid leave component was whittled down to four weeks before being axed from the package entirely.

The winnowed proposal was an attempt to satisfy moderate Democrats, especially Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). Since Republicans oppose the spending plan, Democrats need every vote to pass it through the Senate.

The paid leave proposal faced political headwinds from the outset over its costs and the tax increases that would be used to fund it. Some large business groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, offered tentative support earlier this year if a federal paid leave standard would mean employers could avoid a patchwork of varying state laws. But the House proposal offered no such preemption, and the Chamber ended up opposing the Democrats’ overall reconciliation plan.

Some moderate Democrats were also wary—and Republicans were generally opposed—to creating a new federal entitlement program.

‘Disheartening’

Advocates who have long called for Congress to create a paid family and medical leave program that’s more on-par with benefits offered in many other nations are now questioning when, or even if, the United States will ever provide the same for its workforce. It’s been almost 30 years since Congress passed the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which provides job protections but no guarantee of pay for eligible workers who take time off.

“In the midst of an ongoing pandemic and a jobs crisis, it’s astounding that lawmakers would even consider excluding paid family and medical leave,” said Hannah Matthews, the deputy executive director for policy for the Center for Law and Social Policy.

Laura Narefsky, counsel on education and workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center, said it’s “disheartening” to see Congress leaving paid leave out of the package, but “that does not mean that the fight is over.”

The U.S. is an exception to a long list of economically developed countries that guarantee paid leave for new mothers, while some nations also ensure leave for new fathers and/or for other caregiving or medical reasons.

Countries in the European Union make available an average of 22 weeks of maternity leave annually, and those in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development offer 18 weeks on average, according to a 2019 OECD report.

“If this administration and Congress squander this opportunity to establish a program that would help so many working families across this country in their greatest moment of need and unite the country—what a failure,” said Dawn Huckelbridge, director of the Paid Leave for All campaign.

—With assistance from Alex Ruoff

To contact the reporters on this story: Paige Smith in Washington at psmith@bloomberglaw.com; Chris Marr in Atlanta at cmarr@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Lauinger at jlauinger@bloomberglaw.com; Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com

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