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Campaigns for Paid Family and Medical Leave Gain Momentum, Despite GOP Resistance

Activists are pushing forward paid leave bills in several states, and Washington, DC, may soon offer 16 weeks of paid time off.

Part of the Series

Advocacy groups in several states are driving forward paid family and medical leave legislation – policies that would help people care for their families and themselves without significant loss of income. Most prominently, Washington, DC, is currently considering a policy that, if adopted, would be the most progressive paid family leave program in the United States.

Approximately 18 jurisdictions are driving forward some type of paid family and medical leave legislation.

This local- and state-level activism stands in stark contrast to the political climate at the federal level. Just days before Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) was elected the 54th Speaker of the House of Representatives, while remarking on his likely nomination, Ryan stated that he “cannot and will not give up [his] family time” if he took the speakership position. The Democratic Party and several progressive groups seized on his remarks, criticizing Ryan’s consistent opposition to paid family and medical leave programs that would make such family time a reality for people struggling to balance paid work with domestic work. Speaker Ryan has helped make paid family and medical leave a charged public issue for the 2016 presidential race, but Ryan and the Republican-controlled House will still likely thwart any federal paid family and medical leave program that is introduced in Congress.

And yet, approximately 18 jurisdictions – including Arizona, Connecticut, Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Oregon and Washington, DC – are driving forward some type of paid family and medical leave legislation, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families. The National Partnership is a DC-based advocacy group that has been advocating for paid family and medical leave programs for years and collaborates with state and local activists on emerging legislation.

“I’m more optimistic than I’ve ever been that we’re in a transformative moment,” said Vicki Shabo, vice president of the National Partnership. “There is activity on [paid family and medical leave] throughout the country. I think this is a moment where we can actually make some progress.”

The Fight for Paid Leave in Washington

The policy in Washington, DC, which was proposed on October 6 by DC Councilmember David Grosso, would guarantee 16 weeks of paid time off for anyone who lives in or works in the District.

“There’s no use to having the right to take family leave if you can’t afford any of it.”

The policy mandates that DC employers and some employees contribute to a fund that will enable workers paid time off for a range of family events including adopting or fostering a child, the birth of a new child or a personal medical issue. Employers pay into the fund as a regular payroll tax. The only employer that would be excluded from the program is the federal government, which constitutionally cannot be forced to abide by local legislation. Federal employees, self-employed residents and people who live in Washington, DC, but work outside of the city would pay into the program on their own.

The program is fully funded through employer and employee contributions; it does not receive separate government funding.

DC’s proposed policy does not guarantee job security, though it is designed to match the 16 weeks of job protected leave that most DC workers currently have through the District’s current unpaid family leave policy, known as DC FMLA.

“There’s no use to having the right to take family leave if you can’t afford any of it,” said Rebecca Ennen, a spokesperson for Jews United for Justice, a leader in the DC Paid Family Leave coalition.

The DC coalition looked to existing paid leave policies in California, New Jersey and Rhode Island in crafting its policy, though the 16-week period is unique.

“We tried to push things as far as we thought we could,” Ennen said.

Rev. Rob Keithan and his wife Mandy Keithan are DC residents who just had a baby daughter. Despite not having any paid leave, the Keithans figured out how to stretch their finances so they could both be at home for one month.

“But all our good planning and saving went out the window when our daughter was born seven weeks early, after my wife had been hospitalized for nine days,” Rev. Keithan said. “So suddenly we have the stress and trauma of a premature birth and a baby in the NICU [neonatal intensive care unit], and we’re looking at eight to 12 weeks off work instead of four. We don’t yet know how bad it’s going to affect us.”

Needless to say, Rev. Keithan is a strong supporter of the DC legislation.

“I’m thrilled that DC might lead the way and create a model for the nation. The DC proposal is smart, strong, efficient and compassionate,” Rev. Keithan said.

The DC City Council will hold its first hearing on the policy most likely in early December.

Campaigns in New York and Connecticut

A similar policy is gaining traction in New York State. The Paid Family Leave Insurance Act, which passed the New York State Assembly in March, would provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave to bond with a new child, care for a seriously ill family member or deal with issues that arise when a family member is called to active military service. The bill is still pending in the New York State Senate.

“Workers should not have to choose between financial stability and family well-being.”

New York’s policy is similar to existing paid leave programs in California, New Jersey and Rhode Island in that it would expand the state’s temporary disability insurance program to include paid family leave. The program would be funded by both employer and worker contributions. Like DC’s policy, New York’s policy would not create a government source of funding for the program. But if enacted, New York’s policy would be the most progressive statewide policy in the nation in terms of the length of time it enables people to take off for family needs (currently California and New Jersey enable six weeks of paid family time off, and Rhode Island enables four weeks).

While the bill awaits Senate approval, the New York Paid Leave Coalition is building support for the program through local organizing.

“We will continue to build out the campaign by expanding regional leadership teams to leverage local community leaders and impacted residents to raise their voices on the need for a state paid family leave policy,” said Donna Dolan, executive director of the New York Paid Leave Coalition.

Connecticut also has paid family and medical leave legislation pending. Unlike the programs in DC and New York, the Connecticut program would be entirely worker funded, requiring workers to pay into the program. It would not mandate employers to pay in, nor would it create a government source of funding for the program. Instead, employers would simply withhold a percentage of workers’ pay. The legislation, which included Republican supporters, did not pass in 2015 but advocates are optimistic that it will be enacted in 2016.

“Without wage compensation and robust employer-provided benefits, many people must make the difficult decision to continue working or to be home with their families,” said Nikki Seymour of the Connecticut Women’s Education and Legal Fund. “We believe this is non-negotiable; workers should not have to choose between financial stability and family well-being.”

Opposition From Business Groups

A common thread among these various emerging bills is the opposition they face from pro-business groups. In Washington, DC, the Chamber of Commerce has been a vocal opponent. In Connecticut, the Business and Industry Council calls the state’s legislation a “full-scale mandate war against mom-and-pop” businesses.

But not all business owners agree. Sharon Rose Goldtzvik is the founder and CEO of Uprise, a startup Washington, DC, communications firm. She sees paid family and medical leave as a way for small businesses to attract talent to DC.

“Paid leave is extremely expensive to buy piecemeal, which is why only giant corporations can offer it,” Goldtzvik said. “The paid leave bill currently in front of the DC [City] Council is smart and affordable. It’s the only way small businesses like mine can afford to create good [local] jobs. That’s a fantastic deal for employers.”

Though enacting a federal policy is unlikely as long as Republicans control the House, all this local activism does have support – and funding – at the federal level. The Department of Labor, led by Secretary Tom Perez, has been vocal about the importance of paid leave.

Currently, only 13 percent of all Americans have any access to paid time off to care for loved ones.

“The United States stands alone as the only industrialized nation in the world where paid family and medical leave is not the law of the land. In many places, this issue is not partisan or even controversial – the benefits to the economy and parent and child health are undeniable,” Patricia Moscoso from the Department of Labor’s Office of Public Affairs told Truthout. “Without a national paid leave policy, we’re … forcing people to make unconscionable decisions between the job they need and the family they love. That’s why progress on state and local levels is so encouraging.”

The Department of Labor also highlights the economic harm to businesses, workers and the economy as a whole due to the absence of paid family and medical leave policy. Currently, only 13 percent of all Americans have any access to paid time off to care for loved ones. That 13 percent are lucky enough to either work for an employer who offers paid time off as a “benefit,” or they live in one of three states that already have paid leave programs (California, New Jersey and Rhode Island).

While the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 guaranteed 12 weeks of job protection for those who need time off, it does not guarantee any paid time off and it only covers some 50 percent of all US workers.

And this gap in paid family and medical leave disproportionately affects low-wage and part-time workers in sectors like fast food or retail, while workers at large corporations are more likely to have access to some paid time off. Journalist Sharon Lerner noted this year that nearly one-quarter of new mothers currently return to work two weeks after giving birth since they do not have any paid time off. Such workers are not in a position to demand and bargain for paid family and medical time the way Speaker Paul Ryan can.

Ryan’s comments about his own family time needs triggered a reaction among center-left groups that adds fuel to these local and state paid family and medical leave campaigns. And all of this conversation reveals the broader systemic problem of our economy: Any economic power people have is through the making and selling of widgets, largely outside of the home, and largely in furtherance of another person’s bottom line. We have little, if any, economic value or power if we parent children, nurse the sick or otherwise care for other people.

As a result, time off to care for other people is characterized as a “fringe benefit” available to a lucky few like Speaker Ryan. This flawed economic setup straps people who, even for a limited amount of time, seek to care for family members or other people in their lives. The DC policy and other state and local policies have the power to slowly transform the status quo.