There’s still hope for expanded paid parental and sick leave.
Many left-leaning groups are wringing their hands over what Donald Trump may or may not do over the new four years in office. Yet for all the uncertainty and anxiety, staff with the Washington DC Paid Family Leave Coalition are cheering as the District prepares to pass one of the most generous paid leave laws in the country.
The measure would give paid time off to new parents and workers who need time off to care for sick children or relatives. Moreover, such policies will likely benefit the workers in the lowest-income bracket more than any other group.
“It feels like everything is at risk and the sky is falling,” Joel Feinspan said at an event where advocates for paid parental and sick leave gathered. “But we have huge opportunities to do something game changing.”
At a time when many progressives believe that their core causes ― climate change, LGBTQ rights, civil rights, abortion rights ― hang in the balance, the cause of paid parental leave (and its counterpart benefit, paid sick leave) is looking like it may be bright a spot during the coming years of the Trump administration.
Just in 2016, 14 states, cities and counties enacted laws for paid sick leave that give workers time off when they’re ill … without losing their pay. Many of those laws also cover paid time off for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault to allow them to access services, a benefit known as “paid safe leave.”
The past year also saw New York state pass a groundbreaking measure that provides 12 weeks off for new parents or workers who need to care for ill family members. And San Francisco passed the first fully paid parental leave measure in the country.
These changes are something to cheer about, but we should also remember how far behind the rest of the world we are. The United States is the only developed economy that doesn’t guarantee any paid sick or maternity leave to workers. This leaves policies up to individual employers. In the private sector, roughly 60% of workers get some paid sick leave, but that number drops to a mere 39 percent within the bottom quarter of the income scale, according to data from the Department of Labor.
The figures are even worse when it comes to parental leave. A mere 12 percent of private sector workers get paid parental leave. The U.S. does have one law, the Family Medical Leave Act, that guarantees 12 unpaid weeks off to new parents. But because it’s limited to larger companies it leaves out 40% of the workforce.
A shocking 25% of mothers are back to work less than two weeks after giving birth to children. And in an age when 40 percent of families rely on a female breadwinner (and in many more families where both parents work), this lack of support often has devastating economic consequences for families and children.
An expanding number of companies now consider paid leave to be good business policy ― and indeed many boosted the amount offered to workers in recent years. But these companies typically employ well-paid white collar workers (law, technology, etc).
This is where the leave laws come into play. Often funded by a small payroll tax, paid leave laws spread the cost of leave out across the workforce and help a more diverse pool reap the benefits.
National polls indicate that an overwhelming majority of Americans support paid leave. Even conservative intellectuals, who historically opposed paid leave (arguing that it’s bad for business, that people shouldn’t have kids if they can’t afford it, etc.) are finally coming around.
President-elect Trump, with encouragement from his daughter Ivanka, offered up a maternity leave proposal during the campaign season. Unfortunately, Trump’s initial proposals fall short of acceptable, offering only six weeks paid time off and only providing it to married women who give birth.
Giving leave only to women puts them at a clear disadvantage in the workplace where an employer might go with a male candidate knowing he wouldn’t get any paid time off. It also entirely leaves out gay dads. Advocates also don’t like Trump’s idea to fund maternity leave by using money set aside for unemployment insurance.
“Babies don’t just have mothers and biological parents, and it’s not just newborns that need care,” Bravo said. “We are concerned about an approach that would leave out so many; and also the particulars of his proposal would shift money others need for unemployment. That money is already too scarce.”
The D.C. measure that’s coming up for a vote would be far more generous, giving 11 weeks paid time off to new parents (regardless of gender, including adoptive parents) and providing workers with eight weeks off to look after sick family members. It’s funded through a payroll tax paid solely by employers, and it’s most generous to those making the least money. Those earning up to $45,000 a year get 90% of their regular pay. Beyond that, employees get 50% replacement up to a maximum of $1,000 a week.