‘Can we find a deal?’: Coronavirus sparks debate over paid leave

Democrats, Republicans and corporate America are coalescing behind a federal paid leave policy for the first time in the U.S., one of few rich nations where workers aren’t automatically provided the benefit. But as they hammer out the details, fracture lines are already emerging that could derail the decades-long effort once again.

President Joe Biden’s support for a federal program, combined with public frustration at a lack of paid leave during the pandemic, has Democrats reaching for a robust policy. Republicans and employers, many of whom balk at the potential cost to businesses and the government, are seeking a more targeted approach.

“We’re closer to a federal paid leave policy than we’ve ever been,” said Dawn Huckelbridge, director of Paid Leave for All, an advocacy group. “This is the time when we can push it to the finish line.”https://a4c41b575340f869f83742e574252ee9.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

But negotiating the specifics, she acknowledged, will be an uphill battle: “There’s a lot of questions and various paths forward, and a lot of real-time chess being played.”

There is already a wide gap between what Biden campaigned on, what Republicans are amenable to and what employers think is workable. The president wants to provide all workers with a week of paid sick leave to care for a personal illness, and 12 weeks of longer-term paid family and medical leave to care for themselves or a family member. Some GOP members have floated a narrower approach, while others remain wary of a universal standard that could burden businesses.

“[A] permanent one-size-fits-all federal mandate being pushed by Democrats is not the answer,” House Education and Labor ranking member Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) said. “New and small businesses are the least equipped to deal with sweeping national mandates during the best of times, let alone a pandemic, and the last thing we want to do is pile on yet another.”

But some advocates say a paid leave policy would have saved the government a load of money during the pandemic. Before the crisis struck, nearly 1 in 4 U.S. workers lacked access to paid sick leave, while 4 in 5 lacked access to paid family leave. More than half are estimated to lack access to paid medical leave.

“We did sort of a back-of-the-envelope analysis of this, and it would have saved the federal government a trillion dollars to have had a federal national paid leave program in place before this pandemic hit,” said Maggie Cordish, who advised Ivanka Trump on paid leave during the Trump administration. “A lot of people would be able to have kept their jobs, taking the time off they needed to deal with caregiving responsibilities, to reorganize their sort of carefully constructed caregiving infrastructure.”

For its part, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce prefers that lawmakers hold off on paid sick leave but would be open to a paid family leave policy.

“We are no longer in the ‘just say no’ mode, which we had been for a long time,” said Marc Freedman, vice president of employment policy at the Chamber. “We are now in the ‘can we find a deal?’ mode.”

Deciding the length of leave is “the least difficult thing to figure out,” Freedman said. Even if Congress and the White House can manage to reach an agreement on the breadth of a policy, other, more complicated questions abound. Who pays for it? Would a federal policy preempt the web of existing state and local requirements? What type of employers would be covered, and what kind of workers could be eligible?

In search of answers, policymakers and businesses are looking to state and local governments that have implemented policies “to see how they have impacted workers and employers,” said Ben Brubeck, vice president of regulatory, labor and state affairs at Associated Builders and Contractors.

The skeleton of a paid leave policy in the U.S. was first erected in 1993, when President Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act. It entitled employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for personal illness, the illness of a family member or military deployment.

But the last three decades have seen no further federal action outside of a successful 2019 push to provide federal employees paid parental leave.

In the absence of congressional action, state and local governments took matters into their own hands.

Joshua Seidman, an attorney who represents employers, said that in a matter of years, businesses have seen new laws pop up in Washington state, the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Oregon and Colorado, among others. And that’s “just in the paid family leave space,” he said.

“This year, we’ve seen the paid sick leave landscape explode,” Seidman said, as the pandemic prompted a flurry of legislative activity.

Over the past decade, unions and labor activists have accelerated their lobbying activity at the municipal and state levels. Their efforts were fruitful: 12 states and the District of Columbia have implemented their own versions of paid sick leave; nine states and D.C. have rolled out a form of paid family and medical leave.

“As we win and study more of the laws that have passed at the state level, it does help to make the case federally,” said Jared Make, vice president for A Better Balance, a national nonprofit advocacy organization for workers.

Make, who works closely with paid leave advocates in statehouses, said his group will push for Congress to enact a law similar to what was just implemented in Colorado. That law, considered to be the most robust in the nation, covers all workers.

On Capitol Hill, Democrats like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.) have been fighting to establish permanent paid sick leave and family and medical leave at the federal level — most notably via their FAMILY Act, which they reintroduced earlier this month and would give workers 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave. Then-Sen. Kamala Harris unveiled a plan from the campaign trail that would give workers six months of paid family and medical leave. And Democrats fought to include a permanent paid leave policy in rounds of coronavirus relief legislation.

With the support of the Trump administration, Republicans began to warm to the idea. Ivanka Trump’s lobbying for the benefit contributed to its inclusion in the Families First relief package, which provided half the workforce with two weeks of coronavirus-related sick leave at full pay and up to 12 weeks of family and medical leave to care for family members at two-thirds pay.

The Families First program was a statistic-backed success: States that gained access to paid sick leave experienced about 400 fewer cases of Covid-19 per day, researchers at Cornell University and the Swiss Economic Institute found.But the tax credit portion of the program alone was extended in December — not the actual teeth of the policy, the mandate — and language to renew it was dropped from Biden’s rescue plan. The version of the bill moving through the House would once more extend the tax credits only.

At least one state, New Jersey, decided to give state workers coronavirus sick days after the federal provision lapsed, on top of the state’s other existing paid leave programs.

With a paid leave advocate in the Oval Office and narrow majorities in both chambers, Democrats are redoubling their efforts for a permanent policy.

“This shouldn’t be a partisan issue — it isn’t for families, and I’m going to keep making it clear that it’s not and trying to get this done,” said Senate HELP Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

House Oversight Chair Carolyn Maloney rolled out a bill last month alongside DeLauro and others that would provide federal employees with 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, which she said she hopes can serve as a model for a similar program covering the private sector.

Still, Republicans remain concerned about how the policy could be funded in a way that does not place too much pressure on employers. In part, this is why employers and Republicans are more amenable to paid family leave over paid sick leave: Not only does FMLA provide an existing structure, but many states have rolled out paid family leave programs that are paid for in whole or in part via employee contributions, a model that would place less of a burden on businesses. The cost of paid sick leave, on the other hand, “is basically stuck on the employer,” Freedman said.

It’s a key example of wait-and-see at the state level: “Two of the biggest and what might be considered to be the most left of center states, New York and California, both are over 100 percent, employee-funded programs,” said Glenn Spencer, senior vice president of employment policy at the Chamber of Commerce.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on February 25, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Eleanor Mueller is a legislative reporter for POLITICO Pro, covering policy passing through Congress. She also authors Day Ahead, POLITICO Pro’s daily newsletter rounding up Capitol Hill goings-on.

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