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The New Push for Paid Family Leave

Sharon Lerner

Today, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representative Rosa DeLauro introduced the Family Act, a bill that would grant every employee in the country access to up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave. It’s a move that’s been long in coming. Really long.

For the past 20 years, workers who have needed time off to care for a seriously ill family member or a new baby have had to rely on the Family and Medical Leave Act. With its 12 weeks of job-protected leave, the FMLA has helped people hang on to their jobs while dealing with the exigencies of life in more than 100 million instances. But, about 40 percent of workers aren’t covered by the law. And, because its leave is unpaid, countless workers have qualified for time off but been unable to afford to take it.

The FAMILY act, which would provide workers with two-thirds of their salary up to a cap for as much as 12 weeks, solves those problems. Polls show high levels of bipartisan support for the idea. And recent evidence from California, which has the oldest of three state paid leave programs, shows having a family leave insurance fund can financially stabilize workers, save businesses the expense of providing their own benefits, and even increase fathers’ participation in the care of their babies.

Still, if the history of pushing for paid maternity leave is any guide, today marks the first day of what will likely be a long and ugly battle. Advocates first started pushing for paid time off for new mothers back in 1919, when the Model T was switching from a crank to an electric starter. Back then, Germany and France had paid-leave laws that had been in place for decades, and the U.S. government came close to signing on to an international agreement that said women workers should receive cash benefits in addition to job-protected leave for 12 weeks in the period surrounding childbirth.

That first real drive for maternity leave fell victim to circumstance. (Some early proponents of maternity benefits got tripped up by whether to insist that protections and income for pregnant women be part of national health coverage, which, sadly, they seemed to think was around the corner.) So did the next one, which began after women flooded the workforce during World War II, and ended when men returned home to reclaim their jobs. The next push involved expanding the reasons for leave to include serious illnesses in workers and their family members. Lawmakers drafted an ambitious bill that, at first, would have given all workers up to 26 weeks off for medical leave and 18 for parental leave and after much fighting and several vetoes, became the relatively anemic FMLA.

No doubt, there will be more opposition this time around. The debate over leave for workers tends to serve as a proxy for tensions surrounding the presence of women in the workplace. And the sense that employers are being told how to relate to their employees is sure to be met with some resistance. Already, at least one conservative commentatorhas argued that that tax breaks would be a better way to meet workers’ needs for flexibility. And, as they have in every state battle over paid leave, business groups are sure to take issue with the fact that bill’s proposal to fund the benefit through contributions from both employee (who would put in .2 percent of salary) and employer.

Yet, if it’s virtually certain that the FAMILY Act won’t make it through this Congress in its current form, it’s just as certain that paid family and medical leave will ultimately become law. Since the movement that led to Gillibrand’s announcement first began almost 100 years ago, virtually all other countries have managed to confront the inevitable collision between workplace and family responsibilities. All but three countries in the world have paid maternity leave. It’s time for the US to catch up.