During the presidential campaign, it appeared that finally, something would happen with paid family leave. The question now is how long it will take for meaningful change to happen, and whether that change will actually be useful to those who need time to look after themselves or their loved ones.
The Trump administration has not spoken much about paid leave since the campaign, when it mentioned a six-week leave that would be available to new birth mothers. That leave would be paid for by unemployment insurance, and the money would be found, Trump said, by cutting fraud.
On February 6, The Washington Post reported that the Trump plan might also be made available to new dads. But there still isn't a formal proposal.
Meanwhile, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, and Representative Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut, reintroduced their bill, called the Family and Medical Insurance Leave, or Family, Act. It would provide for two-thirds of a worker's pay for up to 12 weeks, and could be used to care for oneself or for a family member, including a newborn. It would be paid for by a small payroll tax shared by employees and employers.
That same week, Senator Deb Fischer (Republican of Nebraska) introduced her paid family leave act, called the Strong Families Act. It creates a tax incentive of 25 percent of an employee's salary to businesses that provide two weeks of paid family leave. While a tax incentive might encourage some businesses to offer family leave, it wouldn't do much to make paid leave available to everyone. And Fischer's bill would only allow for a two-year pilot program.
Both bills have been introduced before. Nonetheless, advocates for paid leave are optimistic in the medium to long term, partly because New Jersey, California, and Rhode Island already offer paid leave.
"No one expects the Family Act to pass in 2017 or 2018," says Ellen Bravo, the director of the Family Values @ Work Consortium, a network of state groups working for paid leave. "But what are the chances of paid leave becoming a defining issue and eventually passing? I think maybe that could happen by 2021." She bases this on continuing momentum in the states, and the fact that, "We've never before had an election where each presidential candidate talked about the need for some kind of paid leave."
The main arguments raised against mandatory paid leave are generally that it's expensive, and also that even if employers don't have to pay the salaries of their on-leave employees themselves, it's still a burden to find someone to fill in while the employee is out. The libertarian argument is that if paid leave is such a great idea, businesses will figure it out and do it themselves, without government intervention.
Yet a study of paid leave in California found that 90 percent of California employers believe the law has had either a positive or a neutral affect on their businesses. In that same study, small businesses were more enthusiastic about the law than large ones, perhaps because without state-mandated paid leave, they would have a hard time matching the paid-leave benefits of the more generous larger companies.
"I think it's helpful for the government to look at mandating a paid benefit that would be truly beneficial for our country," says Shiloh Butterworth, the director of employee experience at 210-person PAE, a Portland, Oregon-based engineering firm that just introduced six weeks of fully paid leave for its employees to care for themselves or others. "If you take the money off the table, people will take the time they need to heal, recover, welcome a child, be with their loved ones. And then they return to work healthy and happy and ready to go."
Leave for everyone
Some smaller companies are taking things into their own hands. "Because employees are not robots, there are times when they need to be supported," says Kerry Ann Rockquemore, who runs a six-person company in Detroit, called the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity, that offers online training to university professors. She is in favor of mandatory paid leave, but since that doesn't exist in Michigan, she instituted a paid-leave program for her company.
As part of her research, she found out that many professional women who loved their jobs before becoming parents returned to work with anger or resentment toward their employers, because their employers did not support them in their new roles as parents. Rockquemore now provides 12 weeks of fully paid leave for new parents. "I would rather invest in my employees than pay the cost of them returning exhausted and with less passion for their work, or worse, leaving us later for another company with better benefits," she says.
To some, the Trump proposal, narrow as it may be, looks like a step in the right direction. After all, the U.S. is one of only two countries to not mandate some sort of paid leave, and employers such as Rockquemore and Butterworth remain more the exception than the rule. The Family Medical Leave Act guarantees only unpaid leave and covers only about 60 percent of the work force.
But paid-leave advocates say they won't support the Trump proposal. First, they say, it just excludes too many parents--possibly dads, but also adoptive parents and same-sex couples. It doesn't provide any support for people who get seriously ill or have to care for someone who is. Plus, the payout would be small: on average, about one-third of a worker's pay. That might mean that taking time off after the arrival of a child would still be cost-prohibitive for many parents.
The Trump proposal, says Vicki Shabo, vice president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, "would do more harm than good. It reinforces sex stereotypes and creates perceptions that women are the ones who need to stay home with children. Plus, the way they want to pay for it is completely untenable." Butterworth says it was important for his firm's so-called wellness for leave to be available to everybody. "When men are able to walk away from work to care for someone, it send a clear message to women that it's OK," he says.
As Shabo notes, the Trump proposal is also controversial because it says leaves will be paid for out of funds used for unemployment insurance. And even to access that money, someone will have to identify and eliminate enough fraud to pay for the leaves. In states that already have paid leave, it's funded through a payroll tax paid entirely by employees. In New Jersey, which provides paid leave of up to $524 a week, that comes to 64 cents a week.