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Obama Can’t Get Paid Family Leave for All Workers, but He Can Show the Brutality of Those Who Oppose It

Sharon Lerner

The President’s focus on paid family leave in his State of the Union address and the week leading up to it is, in practical terms, a modest step forward. By requiring federal agencies to advance employees up to six weeks of paid sick leave when they have a baby, his memorandum issued last Thursday will directly strengthen the safety net under more than four million federal workers. It’s not an inconsiderable number and yet just a tiny fraction of hundreds of millions of American workers that currently lack any formal paid leave. 

The budget proposal he’ll release in February, which should include $2.2 billion for states starting their own paid leave programs as well as $35 million to help states move toward creating state programs, are similarly important, overdue—and limited—steps in the right direction. This money may result in millions more workers around the country have paid time off when they become parents. But it will be years in coming and the path forward for states that don’t have Temporary Disability Insurance systems is not an easy or clear one. (The three states that have paid family leave – California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island—have longstanding TDI programs, while Washington, the one state without TDI that passed a paid leave law hasn’t managed to create a program.)

Still, Obama’s spotlight on paid family leave—or, rather, the lack of paid family leave—is incredibly valuable. Having time off to care for new babies is not just the law in the developed world, it’s policy in virtually every other poor country as well. (Yes, Afghanistan, Chad, and Vietnam are ahead of us on this) In the U.S., too, the idea of giving workers time off after having a new baby has wide appeal, though the support is easy to miss—both because proponents have been unsuccessful in getting paid family leave for almost a century, and because opponents tend to frame this as a typical partisan issue, with Democrats on one side and Republicans on another. 

Paid family leave isn’t a typical partisan issue, though; it is a beloved policy on both on both sides of the aisle—or at least among voters in both parties. Recent polls show 55 percent of Republican women supporting The FAMILY Act, which would provide workers with up to 12 weeks off paid to care for a new baby or deal with their own or a relative’s serious illness. And 62 percent of Republicans as well as 70 percent of working men polled in 2009 agreed with the statement that “businesses should be "required to provide paid family and medical leave for every worker who needs it." 

Yet, while most Republicans see the value in paid family leave, Republican lawmakers still don’t for the most part, putting them in a politically untenable position that they won’t want to inhabit for long. By bringing the issue to the fore, Obama is garnering the approval of reasonable folks in both parties and drawing attention to the gulf between these Republican officeholders and their constituents. So when the White House highlights the fact that only 11 percent of workers are covered by formal paid family leave policies, for instance, they’re underscoring both the dire need for paid family leave—and the brute insensitivity of those opposing it.

This leaves Republicans to take up arms against a popular and humane policy. Lamar Alexander, Senate Health, Education Labor and Pensions Committee chair. began this uncomfortable work last week, dismissing paid family leave as a “government mandate, however well-intentioned” that will somehow reduce workers’ freedoms. Republicans are also trotting out their tried, though not true, argument that paid family leave is a “job killer.”

Fortunately, the President knows this isn’t true. Perhaps the only silver lining of lagging so far behind on paid leave is that we’ve had ample time to study it—and his administration clearly knows the research. Economist Eileen Appelbaum studied businesses in California, showing they continued to thrive with paid leave in place. And, last year Appelbaum and I found that employers in New Jersey had a similarly positive experience: none of the employers in our study felt the state-wide policy affected their productivity or turnover. And many felt it improved their employees’ morale.

So, while, for now, the President can’t get past a national paid family leave law passed, he can show the mean-spirited hypocrisy of opposing it. I’m glad he is.