Federal Workers Just Got Paid Family Leave. Is the Rest of the Country Next?

In a monumental leap forward for paid leave, federal workers will soon be able to earn a paycheck while taking care of a new baby or adopting a child. The Senate approved legislation to offer up to 12 weeks of paid parental leave to the nation’s 2.1 million federal workers, and President Trump is expected to sign the bill.

The measure took seasoned advocates by surprise and was passed in an unexpected way, as part of annual funding for the military. Democratic lawmakers struck a bargain with the White House to create a Space Force, a sixth branch of the military and a priority for the president, in exchange for the parental leave benefits, the Washington Post reports.

“I’m thrilled about it. It’s great we’re starting off with the nation’s largest employer, and it sends a signal to the rest of the country that this is an important legislative issue and we need to expand access to workers nationwide,” said Aparna Mathur, Ph.D., a resident scholar in economic policy studies at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute.

Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow for paid leave policy and strategy at nonpartisan think tank New America, called the legislation “a great step forward,” but expressed disappointment that the benefits only apply to parents taking care of a new child. Most of the recent programs passed at the state level also offer workers paid time off to care for a sick family member or to recover from their own serious illness, she noted.

“Three-quarters of people who are caring for both a child and a parent are prime working age,” she said. “To me, a solution that doesn’t encompass multi-generation caregiving responsibilities falls short.”

A Good Year for Paid Leave

The bill is the biggest sign yet that a national paid parental leave program (if not a more expansive paid family leave) might be on the horizon, and it follows a year full of wins for supporters. In addition to legislative victories at the state level—both Oregon and Connecticut passed generous paid family leave measures—advocates point out that some form of paid leave for all Americans now has bipartisan backing, as well as support from the White House.

Just last week, presidential advisor Ivanka Trump hosted a summit to address the nation’s need for more affordable childcare and paid family leave. “No mother should ever have to choose between staying at home with her infant and being fired from her job,” said Trump, a mom of three.

Although it has stopped short of endorsing a specific proposal, Trump said the White House supports recent bipartisan legislation that would allow new parents to access up to $5,000 in tax credits to help cover expenses of having or adopting a child. “I don’t think that there’s ever been more traction on this issue, with the goal of finding a solution that is grounded in conservative values of work and family,” she said at the summit.

There are also encouraging signs in the private sector. Last week, the Business Roundtable, a group of CEOs whose companies employ more than 15 million workers, sent letters to Congress and President Trump in support of paid family leave. In addition, more companies are offering paid parental leave to their employees, and more companies are expanding on benefits they already offered. Among the Working Mother 100 Best Companies, the average amount of fully paid maternity leave increased from seven to 11 weeks in the past five years.

Proposals on the Table

Even with the recent momentum, the likelihood of a national program passing in 2020 depends on whether Republicans and Democrats can reach a compromise. Experts see two crucial sticking points: Democrats favor a family leave that applies to all kinds of caregiving, while Republicans are more likely to get behind a more limited leave just for new parents. Democrats also tend to support a payroll tax to fund the program, similar to state measures that have passed in recent years, whereas Republicans prefer tax credits or loans to help families cover the cost of taking leave.

Here are the bills that have been introduced (or re-introduced) this year:

Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act

Sponsors: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-CN)

What it does: The FAMILY Act gives virtually all workers 12 weeks of partially paid time off for the birth or adoption of a child; to care for an ill, injured or disabled child, parent, spouse or domestic partner; or to care for one’s own serious medical issues. The program is funded by a small employee and employer payroll tax. It was first introduced in Congress in 2013, and it’s been re-introduced every year since, including this year. It has the most overall support in Congress, but that includes just one Republican, Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey.

Advancing Support for Working Families Act

Sponsors: Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), Rep. Colin Allred (D-TX) and Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY)

What it does: Workers who become new parents would receive $5,000 during the year following a child’s birth or adoption, which they would repay over the following decade through a reduction in their Child Tax Credit. Low-income workers who don’t qualify for the full Child Tax Credit would be able to receive payment replacing 100 percent of their wages for up to 12 weeks, capped at $5,000, but they would have to repay it in cuts to their Child Tax Credit over 15 years. It’s the only bill with bipartisan sponsors and Ivanka Trump has voiced support, but Shabo pointed out it’s unlikely people who need paid leave now would be able to afford a reduced childcare tax credit in the future. “If you are very, very poor, you probably can’t commit to paying something back over 15 years, even if it’s only a few hundred dollars a year,” she said.

Child Rearing and Development Leave Empowerment (CRADLE) Act

Sponsors: Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT)

What it does: It would allow new birth or adoptive parents one, two or three months of partially paid leave by opting to postpone their future Social Security retirement benefits. Workers who take the maximum time off would need to delay their retirement benefits by six months. Critics worry that delaying retirement benefits could cause big financial problems for workers who find themselves dealing with illness, job loss or some other hardship down the road.

New Parents Act

Sponsors: Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), Rep. Ann Wagner (R-MO) and Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX)

What it does: Similar to the CRADLE Act, the New Parents Act would allow parents to use a portion of their Social Security after the birth or adoption of a child, in exchange for delaying or reducing their future retirement benefits. One key difference is the New Parents Act would allow parents to keep working full-time if they choose and use the funds to pay for childcare expenses.

Looking Ahead to 2020

“There’s enough Republican support to show that if Democrats are willing to work across the aisle, some compromise proposal could come up for a vote in the next two years,” Mathur said. “One issue going forward could be the Democrats might hold back from a bill that only covers new parents.”

Shabo agreed it could be difficult to get Democrats on board with a federal bill that falls substantially short of the FAMILY Act, but she pointed out the party is eager to tackle kitchen sink issues that “show they can both do impeachment and work on behalf of the people.”

Not to mention, two more state legislatures, Colorado and Virginia, look likely to pursue paid family leave in 2020.

The conversation has shifted as well, Shabo noted, as “the Democratic [presidential] field has taken the FAMILY Act as the baseline and started to improve on it.” Before she dropped out of the race, Sen. Kamala Harris proposed six months of paid maternity leave, with 100 percent wage replacement for those earning less than $75,000, and other candidates have suggested tweaks that would broaden the FAMILY Act as well.

It all adds up to a year that Mathur described as “hugely successful in pushing this policy forward.”

“It’s not comparable at all to anything we’ve seen in the last decade.”