A new poll has found overwhelming bipartisan support in key battleground states for paid family and medical leave after the pandemic made paid leave a top national priority across ideological lines. Swing state voters, including a solid majority of undecided voters who could decide the next election, say Congress should prioritize passing paid leave as part of a jobs and infrastructure plan as President Biden’s attempts at courting Republicans on infrastructure continue to stall — even without paid leave on the negotiating table.
The poll finds that Democrats could gain a considerable advantage in the next election if they champion paid medical and family leave for all workers, which is supported by 84 percent of likely swing state voters — including 91 percent of undecided voters and 74 percent of Republicans, according to a poll released Monday by Paid Leave for All Action and Global Strategies Group. The poll echoes previous surveys that found bipartisan support for paid leave that allows people to recover from injury and illness or care for a family member or a new child without worrying about losing their job and income.
Advocates and researchers say the COVID pandemic exposed a critical need for a national paid leave standard in the United States that would lift burdens on lower-income families and promote gender equity both in the workforce and family caregiving. Millions of people and especially women have been slow or unable to return to work as pandemic restrictions lift because workers are not confident that they will be able to provide and care for their families without losing their jobs if they or a family member gets sick.
“The pandemic certainly made it crystal clear that not having paid leave in this country was a huge problem when it came to weathering and continuing to weather the storm of this pandemic,” said Ruth Martin, the chief workplace justice officer at the national grassroots network MomsRising, in an interview.
Reflecting popular legislation introduced by Democrats in Congress, the Biden administration has proposed a federal minimum standard for up to 12 weeks of paid leave for workers who need time off work to care for themselves, a family member or a new child. The proposal, part of the $1.8 trillion American Families Plan, would create a national program over the next decade that would pay workers two-thirds of their wages up to $4,000 a month while they are off work, with low-wage workers eligible to receive 80 percent of their pay.
Neil Sroka, a spokesperson for Paid Leave for U.S. (a separate organization from Paid Leave for All Action), said the plan includes paid time off for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence as well as family leave to care for chosen family and adopted children, provisions that progressives and grassroots activists have pushed for years. However, supporters are watching Congress closely as details about the 10-year rollout and benefits for low-income workers are ironed out into legislative proposals. For example, low-wage workers are already paid so little that receiving only a portion of their wages may not be enough to live on, making paid leave impossible to take, according to Martin.
Currently, the United States is the only wealthy country without a national standard for paid parental leave that allows parents to stay home from work and to care for new children, and federal law only covers unpaid leave for public servants and employers with more than 50 full-time employees. Right now, only about 21 percent of workers have access to paid leave for caring for a new child or sick family member, and 40 percent have access to paid medical leave for themselves, according to the Urban Institute. Access to paid leave is even lower among low-wage workers and varies by occupation.
In the seven swing states polled, which include both states won by Donald Trump and Biden in 2020 and are likely to decide control of the Senate in the midterms, 48 percent said they would prefer a generic Republican for an open Senate over 47 percent who said they would prefer a generic Democrat. However, when the generic Democrat supports paid leave and the Republican opposes it, which has historically been the case, Republicans lose their one-point advantage and support for a Democrat increases by 24 points. Among undecided voters, support for a generic Democrat jumps by 46 percent.
Martin said paid leave gives Democrats a big opportunity to peel swing voters away from the Republican side in the 2022 midterms, especially if Democrats push to pass comprehensive paid leave legislation paid for by tax increases on the wealthy and corporations that the GOP attempts to obstruct.
“They sure could and they should,” Martin said.
Majorities of Republicans also support paid leave for parents and workers facing medical problems, although support drops when they are told paid leave would be provided by a government program. Still, there is a strong desire among conservative voters for paid leave, with 55 percent of Republicans and 55 percent of Trump voters saying they would pay more in taxes to make paid leave a reality.
So far, Biden’s slow-moving negotiations with Republicans on infrastructure have focused on physical infrastructure like roads and bridges, not investments in “human infrastructure” such as paid leave, community colleges and the caregiving economy, investments the GOP is trying to obscure and paint as left-wing pipe dreams despite their broad popularity. How to pay for paid leave is also up for debate, with Biden and Democrats supporting tax increases on corporations and the wealthy for their spending plans, a non-starter with Republicans. State approaches to paid leave vary, with some states sharing the cost with employees and employers.
Martin said voters understand that, with different paid leave regimes in each state, there is a need for a national minimum standard that “takes the guess work out of this.” Employers would be able to build on the national standard by attracting employees with larger paid leave benefits than the minimum required and paid for by the government.
“I think people understand your ability to be there to care for your family shouldn’t depend on their zip code,” Martin said.
Even if Biden is able to secure a bipartisan deal on infrastructure before time runs out, it will likely only invest in physical infrastructure that the GOP and Democrats can agree on, and leave out paid family and medical leave. However, Sroka said the White House has been “unusually clear” about its intention to pass “historic” paid leave and caregiving legislation before the midterms.
“The real political risk for both Republicans and Democrats right now is to emerge from this crisis, see what it’s done to the economic standing for families and women in particular, and do nothing,” Sroka said in an interview, adding that voters who want paid sick leave won’t care whether it’s passed along with an infrastructure deal or not.
Democrats are under intense pressure to pass paid leave legislation with their slim majority in Congress with or without Republican votes, potentially putting Republicans bent on obstruction in a difficult political spot ahead of the midterms. A push for paid leave along party lines could also put pressure on Sen. Joe Manchin, the Democrat from West Virginia who has opposed using budget reconciliation rules to bypass the filibuster and pass Democratic priorities without bipartisan support.
“The details are not worked out yet, but I am feeling really optimistic about it right now, I’ll tell you,” Martin said.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Neil Sroka as a spokesperson for Paid Leave for All Action. Sroka is a spokesperson for Paid Leave for the U.S.
Clarification: This story originally used the term “sick leave,” which is usually taken in hourly or daily increments to recover from a short-term illness like the flu and is different than paid family and medical leave, which covers workers for longer periods of time needed to care for a new child or recover from a serious illness, for example.