“The United States is the only industrialized country without a national paid leave policy.” It’s not a new talking point—the news media and policymakers have been repeating the phrase for years. But it shouldn’t require a global competition for the U.S. to establish a national paid family and medical leave program. Providing meaningful, comprehensive paid family and medical leave is the right thing to do for public health, the national economy, and the well-being of working families.
Research shows that paid leave can improve health outcomes for women during pregnancy and after giving birth, reduce the risk of infant mortality and improve child health, and reduce racial and ethnic disparities in health outcomes. Paid leave would also help reduce the wage gap and improve women’s economic security. Women are still responsible for the majority of caregiving responsibilities and are disproportionately likely to work in low-wage and part-time jobs that don’t provide any kind of paid time off.
Creating a national paid leave policy is also incredibly popular. A 2018 survey found that 84% of voters support a comprehensive, national paid family and medical leave plan. That number includes 94% of Democrats, 83% of Independents, and 74% of Republicans. Perhaps because of its popularity, there have been a number of recent proposals from lawmakers across the ideological spectrum purporting to establish a paid family and medical leave policy. The White House is even hosting a summit on “paid family leave and child care affordability” next week.
That should be a good thing, right? Not so fast, because not all so-called “paid leave” proposals are created equal.
This week, Senators Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA), along with Representatives Colin Allred (D-TX) and Elise Stefanik (R-NY) introduced their “solution,” which purports to provide paid family leave for working families in the United States. But don’t be fooled by the headline. The Cassidy-Sinema proposal isn’t paid leave at all; it’s a mechanism that would have working families borrow against themselves while failing to provide job protection, only covering leave for new parents, and providing no new financial assistance in the long run. Calling this proposal “paid leave” is as hypocritical as Ivanka touting her “pro family” agenda while the White House repeatedly takes action to harm working women and families. So it’s no surprise that this is the policy the Trump Administration has chosen to support.
Under the Cassidy-Sinema bill, workers would receive an “advance” of $5,000 during the year following the birth or adoption of a new child. That money would have to be repaid over the following 10 years through cuts to their Child Tax Credit of up to $500 a year—that’s right, working families would have to pay back their “paid” leave, at the same time that they are likely trying to meet higher expenses, including child care. The bill is also limited to people who take leave after giving birth to or adopting a child, meaning people who need to take leave to care for a sick or elderly parent, grandparent, sibling, spouse, or even to deal with their own serious medical needs, would not be covered. Under the current unpaid leave policy (the Family and Medical Leave Act) an estimated three-quarters of individuals who take leave do so to care for someone other than a new child—and none of these people would be covered by the Cassidy-Sinema bill. Not to mention the fact that the bill offers a smaller credit for adopting older children, who already face the greatest hurdles in being adopted.
Fortunately, there is a better option. The Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, sponsored by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), would provide genuine, comprehensive paid family and medical leave for working people in the United States. The FAMILY Act guarantees 12 weeks of leave where individuals could earn up to 66% of their monthly wages, ensuring that low-wage workers have a higher share of their wages replaced. In addition to caring for a new child, it also applies to working people who need to take time off for their own serious health condition—which includes pregnancy and post-partum care—and to care for a child, parent, spouse or partner, and for specific military caregiving and leave. The FAMILY Act also has bipartisan support in the House of Representatives and 200 co-sponsors.
So yes, it is well past time for the U.S. to implement national paid family and medical leave. But that doesn’t mean we need more White House publicity stunts or sham proposals—it means we need Congress to pass the FAMILY Act.