Why the disappearance of paid family leave this time could fuel it later

WASHINGTON – In late 2019, with bipartisan support, including from iconoclastic Senate Democrat Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, President Donald J. Trump’s daughter Ivanka hosted a White House summit to promote his vision of family leave and paid medical.

As with many national initiatives of the Trump years, the effort came to naught, in part thanks to the former president’s lack of interest in legislating. But he also stalled in part because of opposition from Democrats like Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, which saw the plan not as a real federal benefit but as a “payday loan” on future Social Security benefits.

Mme Gillibrand believed that she could do much better.

Last week it was the Democrats’ turn to fail. A 12-week paid family and medical leave program, costing $ 500 billion over 10 years, was supposed to be a centerpiece of President Biden’s social safety net legislation. But he came out of his framework of compromise, victim of the centrists who opposed his ambition and his cost.

The failure of the effort, even amid bipartisan interest, partly reflected the polarization surrounding the Democrats’ renowned national legislation, which Republicans en masse oppose.

Some business groups and GOP supporters of a paid vacation program believe that if it had been broken up and negotiated with Republicans, in the same way that a trillion dollar infrastructure package would have been in demand. Mr. Biden asks, he could have survived, and some believe he could still be resurrected. as a bipartisan initiative.

They said the problem lay with Democrats’ decision to include paid family leave in the sweeping social policy and climate bill – a multibillion-dollar package funded by major tax increases on the corporations and the wealthy – which they knew the Republicans and mainstream business groups would never stand for.

“In all the important areas, when members sit down to determine whether or not we can make good legislation, there are possibilities,” said Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska. “We are not encouraged to work together to solve problems. What we are encouraged to do is align with the team so that we can get the political message. “

At least for now, however, the United States is almost certain to remain one of six countries without paid national leave.

“Fundamentally, to offer paid time off, you have to value women and their work,” Ms. Gillibrand lamented, “and valuing women and their work is a difficult thing for the United States.”

The last-minute termination of the paid vacation program has highlighted long-standing questions about how it may be that, while 186 other countries have such a program, the United States does not. .

Ms Gillibrand was very skeptical of the possibility of a bipartite agreement to resolve the problem. She said she had drafted paid family and medical leave legislation for nearly a decade, sought out many Republican and business partners, and always found the parties too ideologically divided.

But the problem that is attracting interest from both sides – getting more women into the workforce and keeping them there – has only worsened since the coronavirus pandemic struck.

White House officials say 95 percent of the lowest paid workers do not have paid time off, and they are mostly women and people of color. Some five million women lost their jobs during the pandemic, and many of them struggling with access to child care services and plagued by intermittent school closures and periodic outbreaks of Covid -19, have chosen not to return.

Mr. Trump campaigned on the issue and included six weeks of paid federal time off in his budgets, which were ignored by Republican leaders. Republicans in Congress had their own ideas. Legislation introduced in 2019 by Senators Sinema and Bill Cassidy, Republican of Louisiana, and Rep. Elise Stefanik, Republican of New York, and Colin Allred, Democrat of Texas, would offer new parents $ 5,000 in the first year of their baby’s life , which they would pay back over the decade by reducing their child tax credit.

Republican Senators Marco Rubio of Florida, Mitt Romney of Utah, Joni Ernst of Iowa and Mike Lee of Utah have also proposed offering workers parental leave benefits that should be repaid – with interest – by through cuts to their Social Security retirement benefits.

Nebraska Republican Senator Deb Fischer defended and won more modest legislation – part of the Republican tax cuts of 2017 – that gave small businesses a tax credit to fund family leave. She opposed broader versions because many companies already offer paid leave to employees.

“If you have two or three employees, you can’t afford to take paid family leave because you can’t afford to hire someone to replace them, which is why I think the credit for The tax that we have provided for in the law is really advantageous, ”said Ms. Fischer.

According to the White House, less than a third of small businesses with 100 or more employees offer paid time off. Only 14% of employees with less than 50 employees do so. Ms Fischer admitted that few small businesses have taken advantage of her credit, but she criticized the Treasury Department, under Mr Trump and Mr Biden, for dragging its feet to publish detailed regulations and promote them.

For Democrats, these proposals are not real vacation. They are either loans on other necessary benefits or too limited to tell the difference. Ms Gillibrand said that, optimally, a stable and generous family and medical leave plan would be an ‘earned benefit’ like Social Security and Medicare: workers would contribute to the system and claim the allowance when they need it, regardless of where they how much they earned.

But, she said, taxing workers has become politically difficult. His 2013 bill provided for family and medical leave insurance, funded by a small contribution from employers to each paycheck.

This year, the Biden administration and Democratic leaders have chosen to fund paid vacations out of general revenue, bolstered by tax increases on the rich and on corporations. They said the program was part of a larger “human infrastructure” effort to help children and young parents, which included child care assistance, a child tax credit and a preschool. universal – and therefore did not need a dedicated funding source.

The House proposal would have guaranteed 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave per year to all workers, in the private or public sector, in work like Uber and Lyft, or self-employment. The benefit would have replaced 85 percent of wages or earnings for the lowest-paid workers, declining from there.

This generosity is why the plan ran into a roadblock in the Senate. West Virginia Democrat Senator Joe Manchin III saw a costly new benefit without a stable source of income that he said would end up draining an already stressed social security system.

Ms. Gillibrand and Senator Patty Murray, Democrat from Washington, pleaded, cajoled and negotiated with him. They said a paid vacation plan would bolster Social Security finances by helping women return to work, where they would pay Social Security taxes, and helping young families have more children, which would strengthen the workforce of the future. Democrats have proposed reducing a 12-week leave plan to four weeks and then limiting it to time off for new babies, not medical emergencies.

Mr Manchin has vowed to review the offers, but few are optimistic. Ms. Gillibrand sees the social issues at work. While it is true that virtually every country in the world has a paid vacation program, this is somewhat misleading, she said.

Most of these countries can afford to offer paid time off because they don’t expect women to work once they start having children. Long-term leave plans help couples start having children, but most countries then do not help with childcare because they assume women will stay at home.

The American workforce relies on women. Mr Biden’s compromise framework includes generous grants for child care from birth and universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds. Now she is missing the first step: helping parents during pregnancy and childbirth.

“What we are trying to achieve here is the ability of women to work efficiently and be more productive at work,” Ms. Gillibrand said.

Lawyers say lawmakers shouldn’t give up just yet. Marc Freedman, U.S. Chamber of Commerce vice president for employment policy, said the business group met with congressional offices ahead of the pandemic, pushing for a national paid vacation plan to replace the patchwork of state and local government plans.

The government would create a minimum benefit that companies would be allowed to exceed for recruitment and retention, funded by a payroll tax paid by employees. Such a plan would help small businesses compete for the workforce with larger companies, while offloading some of the burden on companies that already offer time off plans.

“We really want to resume these conversations,” he said.

Some Republicans, especially Republican women, say they are ready to join these talks.

“This is an issue that we need to solve as a nation and look at and get creative,” said West Virginia Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito, who helped secure paid time off for federal workers.

But like the infrastructure deal struck this summer, Democrats probably wouldn’t get everything they want. Ms Capito, for example, said the plan Mr Manchin killed was too generous, with time off beyond care for new babies and sick family members.

Ms. Gillibrand said she had already started raising awareness. She told Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine about a middle step of helping small states band together with larger ones to create regional leave programs. She pointed to the flexibility on funding the type of insurance mechanism that Mr. Freedman said the Chamber of Commerce favors.

But none of those ideas would happen as quickly as the broad agenda Mr Manchin opposes, she said.

“There is work I can do over the next six months to a year, of course, but it will take time,” Ms. Gillibrand concluded. “And it won’t be easy.

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