BEYOND THE NUMBERS
This week, both the White House and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal put forward ambitious plans to address major gaps in our caregiving infrastructure by creating a permanent, broad-based, comprehensive, and progressive paid family and medical leave program.
The pandemic exposed these gaps in the nation’s system of paid leave, with millions of workers lacking access even to a single sick day — let alone longer-term leave for serious illnesses or to care for a family member. Policymakers responded by creating a temporary paid leave program in the spring of 2020, which allowed many workers to take paid time off for COVID-19-related reasons.
But millions of other workers struggle to get by when they need time off work because they have a new baby or have adopted a child, become seriously ill, or are caring for ailing family members. And all too often they must choose between meeting those needs and the paycheck that puts food on their family’s table.
The United States is alone among wealthy countries in its lack of a national paid family and medical leave program. Both the White House’s and Chairman Neal’s plans would address this major gap in our caregiving infrastructure.
Yesterday, we outlined our principles for a paid leave program:
- Reasons for leave should be comprehensive. Both the White House’s and Chairman Neal’s plans would cover workers who welcome a new child to the family, face a serious illness, provide care for an ailing family member, or manage a military deployment. The White House plan would also cover bereavement and seeking safety from domestic abuse, stalking, or sexual assault. Both represent a big step forward. Today, many workers with access to paid family and medical leave only have access to maternity or short-term disability leave, while most workers have no paid family and medical leave at all.
- Coverage should be universal or nearly so. Both plans would cover the vast majority of workers. This contrasts with the current patchwork of policies — paid and unpaid, public and private, national and local — under which some workers get time off but most remain ineligible for any paid family and medical leave.
- Eligibility should be flexible. Both plans are federal social insurance programs rather than an employer-provided or state-run benefit. That means people could access benefits even if they change employers or move to a different state, and workers could gain eligibility from part-time work and self-employment. Current paid leave policies often depend on job tenure, employer size, or residence in a certain state, and leave out workers with non-traditional schedules or work arrangements.
- Definition of family should be inclusive. Both plans would cover caregiving leave for any family member, including chosen family (that is, individuals who act as family but are not related by blood, marriage, or adoption). In contrast, unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) only covers workers’ spouses, minor or disabled children, and parents.
- Benefits should be progressive. Both plans would replace lost wages for workers on leave, with more generous benefits for workers with lower pay. Both plans would replace at least two-thirds of recent earnings, scaling up to 80 percent for low-paid workers in the White House plan and 85 percent in the chairman’s plan. Benefits would be capped at $4,000 a month in both plans. These benefits would allow families to afford the basics while they take time away from work, in contrast to unpaid leave under FMLA, and to many less generous state and private policies, which can make it impossible for some workers to take time off. It’s important to note that under the White House plan, the number of weeks of paid leave available would phase in over time, not reaching 12 weeks of leave until the tenth year. While this is not ideal, many large-scale policy advances phase in over time.
- Paid leave should be financed responsibly. State and local paid leave programs generally are financed through a payroll tax. While the Neal plan is silent on financing, the White House plan identifies revenues more broadly that would provide sustainable funding for its proposals. Taken together, the Administration’s American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan, including the paid leave program, are financed through increased revenues from reforms to corporate tax policies, tax increases on high-income households, and a tax compliance initiative that will help the IRS collect far more of the taxes that are owed. Overall, the Administration has estimated that its proposals are fully paid for over the first 15 years and that beyond that, the increase in revenues more than covers the permanent investments in the plans, including the paid leave program.
Our final principle — that those who take paid family and medical leave should be afforded job protection, so that an employer can’t terminate someone who takes leave — doesn’t appear to be in either plan. This likely stems not from a disagreement that job protection is important, but from procedural concerns that job protections may not be permissible under rules for legislation being considered under the budget “reconciliation” process. Job protection is a key element of a paid family and medical leave program and should be ultimately included in the program through some workable legislative mechanism.
In addition, policymakers should ensure that a new paid leave program has a strong implementation plan that makes leave accessible to all people who need it. This will require targeted outreach, a simple application process, and swift benefit payments. For example, Chairman Neal’s plan proposes a Worker Information Network that would provide outreach, counseling, and assistance in accessing paid leave benefits.
Both paid leave plans would make progressive, comprehensive paid leave benefits available to workers over the long term. Establishing a permanent paid leave program will help us build toward an equitable recovery, one where workers no longer must choose between their paychecks and their health or their families.