Let’s Press for Progress on Gender Equality Through a Strong U.S. Paid Leave Policy
By Vicki Shabo
On International Women’s Day, it is difficult to ignore the fact that the United States is an international outlier when it comes to paid family and medical leave, and practically every stakeholder in the country — working people, children and adults who need care, large and small businesses and many other communities — is paying the price. The absence of a national paid leave policy in the United States is American exceptionalism at some of its worst.
It is true that we have the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which was signed into law 25 years ago last month. The FMLA was historic and revolutionary at the time, guaranteeing unpaid, job-protected leave to people who need time away from their jobs to care for a new child or deal with a serious personal or family health issue, and it has since been used more than 200 million times. Still, 62 percent of the workforce does not have access to the law’s protections or cannot afford to take leave without pay. And in two decades, our country has failed to expand the FMLA to cover all workers and to take the next step with paid family and medical leave for all.
But our country’s paid leave story is — at long last — entering an exciting and complex new chapter. National paid family and medical leave is on the country’s policy agenda like never before. Politicians, business leaders, researchers and voters across partisan and ideological lines are seriously contemplating next steps in securing a national paid leave plan. Paid leave is no longer an if question. Even in the past 12 months, while Congress and the Trump administration have undermined so many protections and norms, gutted essential regulations and ripped families apart, a surprising cross section of influencers has been grappling with how and when the country should adopt a paid leave plan. New developments are breaking by the day.
Backed by state paid leave policy wins, a growing body of research on state and private sector policies, business allies, and the voices of the working people with the most at stake, a national coalition of organizations convened by the National Partnership for Women & Families, along with public and private sector allies, has helped seed and advance a long overdue national conversation about the kind of paid leave policy the country needs. More than ever, experts are emphasizing the importance of sound, tested policy principles in securing economic security for all and advancing gender equality. And now, just in time for International Women’s Day, a comprehensive new analysis of more than 5,500 studies of paid leave in the United States and around the world bolsters the point and global effort to press for progress.
Enacting a strong paid family and medical leave plan in the United States would mean busting stereotypes about jobs, family and care that hold women and working people back. It would mean recognizing that our businesses and economy are healthier when people can care and provide for themselves and their families while keeping their jobs. It would mean respecting the diversity of families and care needs. And it would mean protecting the health and economic well-being of working people, families and communities.
Fulfilling that vision, though, requires careful attention to details. It means rejecting proposals that would co-opt scarce resources and derail programs like unemployment insurance or existing Social Security old age and disability funds — proposals that, without new investments and funding, would pit people against one another and burden already strained, aging systems and the under-resourced personnel who operate them. It means jettisoning false, ineffective plans like the two-year employer tax credit in the 2017 tax bill, which will exacerbate the “boss lottery” — in which employers hold sole decision-making power over employees’ access to paid leave — and overwhelmingly benefit only companies that have already determined that paid leave is a wise investment, rather than incentivizing many others to start providing it.
Establishing an effective, meaningful paid leave plan for our country also means rejecting plans that are too limited to work. It means exposing as shams plans that would provide benefits so low that people who need paid leave the most would be paying into a system they couldn’t afford to use — and that would reinforce, rather than help to reduce, gendered caregiving norms. It means dismissing as too short-sighted and limited plans that exclude key reasons people need paid leave — for serious health issues of their own or a loved one. It also means accepting that voters, including lower-wage voters, are comfortable contributing to a shared paid leave fund, as workers already do in some states.
Winning national paid leave also means that we need to build bridges.
- For conservatives, it will mean setting aside ideological beliefs that disfavor regulation; listening to conservative economists who acknowledge that the market has failed most workers when it comes to paid leave; and learning from the growing body of evidence that shows paid leave benefits businesses and the U.S. economy — rather than falling back on the disproven, outdated narrative that posited providing workers with leave would harm businesses and bring down the economy.
- For progressives, it will mean acknowledging conservatives’ preferences for smaller government and efficiency; developing common principles; and working intentionally to build strong alliances among traditional paid leave advocates and businesses of all sizes — just as Washington state lawmakers did last summer when they adopted a paid leave plan with the most generous leave durations and wage replacement rates in the country.
- For politicians across party lines, it will mean putting aside partisanship in favor of an evidence-based, tested, strong paid leave policy model that already unites voters across political parties and speaks to the need people have for a government that is responsive to the realities of their lives. The Family And Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act (S. 337/H.R. 947) has broad Democratic and independent support in Congress now; voter sentiment and state evidence suggest bipartisanship should be attainable.
- For the private sector, it will mean following the lead of a growing number of companies and business leaders who recognize the value of paid leave for their employees, their employees’ families, their bottom lines and society. And whether they offer paid leave to their employees or not, contributing to a government-administered fund in order to secure paid family leave for the 100 million workers who are currently without it.
Most of all, securing the kind of national paid leave we need will take trust and respect — in people, to use paid leave benefits responsibly, as evidence from state programs and U.S. Department of Labor FMLA survey data show they overwhelmingly do; in government, to create and administer a program that benefits everyone, just as state programs have done; and in our shared values, like personal responsibility, family responsibility and the importance of providing care, which unite people across racial and ethnic backgrounds, those born in the United States and immigrants, Republicans and Democrats, and wealthy people and the rest of us.
It’s past time for real, comprehensive paid leave in the United States. We can win this together, and — when we do — we’ll have made important progress in our global standing when it comes to supporting women and families, and toward the more equitable country women and our allies are demanding for the well-being of all of us and generations to come.