Last week, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.) reintroduced the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, which would provide workers with up to 12 weeks of partial income while taking family leave.
The bill is a big deal, in part because Gillibrand is running for president in 2020 and in part because the House’s newly seated Democratic majority increases the chances of the legislation moving forward, however unlikely it may be that it will reach the president’s desk.
But here’s what may be even more noteworthy: Republican politicians have begun supporting paid leave. In particular, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.) have been developing a plan that would allow workers to fund parental leave with their Social Security benefits.
Why? And what does that mean for the future of family leave? Let’s take a look.
What family leave proposals are currently on the table?
Gillibrand has introduced the FAMILY Act in each congressional session since 2013. If enacted, the bill would institute a kind of family leave insurance, structured much like unemployment insurance. Eligible workers could earn 66 percent of their monthly wages (capped at $4,000) for up to 12 weeks of leave to care for a new child, a serious health condition of their own or of a family member, and for a limited set of other situations involving military service members. The funds would come from employee and employer payroll contributions of two-tenths of 1 percent, or approximately $2.00 per week for a typical worker. All Democrats currently running for president are co-sponsoring the bill.
But Republicans increasingly support some form of family leave, as well. Previous Republican bills have generally offered employers tax breaks if they will voluntarily provide paid family leave. But only 16 percent of American employees currently receive paid leave through their employers. Rubio’s plan would expand that to far more workers.
Like Gillibrand, Rubio has also been proposing paid family leave for several years. In 2015, Rubio became the first Republican presidential candidate to come out in favor of paid family leave, proposing a 25 percent tax credit for businesses that offered at least four weeks of paid leave.
Since then, far more Republican politicians have publicly stated their support for paid leave. During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump proposed six weeks of paid maternity leave funded through the current unemployment insurance system. He also brought it up in his latest State of the Union address. And last week, several Senate Republicans, including Rubio, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Joni Ernst of Iowa and Mike Lee of Utah met with Ivanka Trump to discuss ways to expand access to paid leave in the United States.
So what has changed in the GOP?
After the so-called blue wave in the 2018 midterms, GOP politicians are already contemplating how to win voters in 2020, especially women, who’ve increasingly been defecting to the Democrats. Supporting family leave may be just the ticket.
Why? Support for paid family leave is high across the country, transcending gender, race, age and party. According to a 2018 survey, 84 percent of registered voters support “a comprehensive national paid family and medical leave policy that covers all people who work.” This includes 94 percent of Democrats, 83 percent of independents and 74 percent of Republicans.
Paid family leave resonates with voters: Seventy percent of voters — including 58 percent of Republicans — said they were more likely to vote for “a 2018 congressional candidate who publicly supports a national paid family and medical leave policy.”
Republicans may also be trying to close the yawning gender gap in the U.S. electorate, as women become increasingly more likely than men to vote for Democrats. Paid family leave is often touted as a women’s issue, so Republicans may be trying to narrow the gap by tackling the issue, as Trump did in 2016. Trump says his older daughter influenced him to adopt the issue on the campaign trail. More than two years later, Ivanka Trump continues to meet with Republican lawmakers to push for legislation.
So what comes next?
The United States remains the only industrialized country in the world that does not guarantee any type of paid family leave at the national level. Six states and Washington, D.C., have adopted their own paid leave laws, which may have served as models for the FAMILY Act.
So what chances do the current proposals have? Republican lawmakers generally oppose legislation that increases taxes or puts a government mandate on employers. Since the FAMILY Act would do both, the GOP-controlled Senate is unlikely to pass Gillibrand’s bill, even if it gets through the House.
Meanwhile, Democrats are unlikely to back Rubio’s policy, which focuses only on parental leave. Almost three-quarters of workers who take unpaid leave under the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) cite their own serious health condition or the need to care for a family member with a serious injury or illness as the reason — and so Democrats want to ensure that all those are covered as well. Further, they are wary of any policy that requires workers to borrow against retirement funds, as Rubio’s does. Gillibrand argues that workers should not have to make a “false choice” between caring for their children or their health and caring for themselves in retirement. And so even if the Senate passes Rubio’s bill, the House almost certainly will not.
In other words, it’s highly unlikely that the 116th Congress will enact paid family leave. But the fact that both parties are now introducing legislation on the issue reveals that a once-marginal issue has gone mainstream.
Megan A. Sholar is a lecturer in the Interdisciplinary Honors Program at Loyola University Chicago and author of “Getting Paid While Taking Time: The Women’s Movement and the Development of Paid Family Leave Policies in the United States” (Temple University Press, 2016).