No #FalseChoice Here: Let’s Give Workers the Paid Leave They Deserve

Why are Republican lawmakers telling us we have to make a choice between financial security when we temporarily leave work to have a child or care for a sick family member, or financial security when we retire?

You shouldn’t have to – because it’s a #FalseChoice.

Let me explain.

Over 100 million people – 85 percent of workers – do not have access to paid family leave through their jobs, and more than 60 percent don’t even have access to personal medical leave through an employer’s temporary disability insurance plan. Rates are even worse for workers in lower-wage jobs. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leaves substantial gaps in coverage: nearly two-thirds of working people are unable to take unpaid leave through the FMLA, either because of eligibility restrictions or because they simply cannot afford to take unpaid leave.

Lack of sufficient paid leave is bad for the physical and mental health of workers and their families. New parents and their babies experience increased stress when parents aren’t able to take any paid time to care for and bond with their newborns, or to recuperate themselves. Parents need to take time to care for children with disabilities or health issues beyond birth, too. Paid leave is critical in these situations: data shows that the presence of a parent shortens a critically ill child’s hospital stay by 31 percent.

Parents aren’t the only ones who need paid family leave. Caring for family members affects people across the spectrum. A recent study found that millennials spend 21 hours per week on family caregiving duties, and 73 percent of them do it while also working at a job. Women are more likely than men to serve as primary caregivers, and are particularly likely to need paid time off to meet their own or their family’s medical needs. All of this means that when serious personal or family health needs inevitably arise, people face impossible choices between their families’ well-being, their own health and financial security, and their jobs.

The United States is the only industrialized nation that does not guarantee paid family leave to workers, and voters realize that we need to catch up. The good news is, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are starting to understand that paid family leave is vital for workers and their families, so people don’t have to make these impossible choices. Legislation in Washington and Massachusetts was passed with bipartisan support that will provide paid family and medical leave to workers in those states.

In response to this growing momentum, the U.S. Senate Finance Subcommittee on Social Security, Pensions, and Family Policy held a hearing examining the importance of paid family leave for working families. At the hearing, there was bipartisan support for the idea that in the United States, the wealthiest country in the world, workers should be able to temporarily take time away from work to welcome a child or care for themselves or a sick family member.

But on Capitol Hill, the bipartisan nature of the support only goes so far. Democrats have introduced the Family And Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act (S. 337/H.R. 947), which would create a comprehensive national program to address America’s paid family and medical leave crisis. The FAMILY Act would provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave to working people through a shared fund that would make benefits affordable and accessible to all. Workers could use these benefits to address their own serious health condition, including pregnancy or childbirth; to deal with the serious health condition of a family member; or to care for a new child. And paid leave is good for business, too: companies and businesses of all sizes that provide paid leave have reduced turnover, increased rates of employee engagement, and better profitability and productivity. The accounting firm Deloitte, for example, has found that implementing its own paid family leave program not only positively impacted employee productivity and retention, but also cost significantly less than the company had anticipated.

But Republicans, led by Ivanka Trump and Senators Joni Ernst and Marco Rubio, are supporting a competing plan that would allow people to receive paid leave upon the birth or adoption of a child only by reducing or delaying their own future Social Security retirement benefits. The plan limits access to new parents only, excluding millions of workers who need paid leave for other reasons. In fact, 75 percent of people who take leave do so to care for a seriously ill, injured, elderly, or disabled family member, deal with a serious personal injury, illness or disability, or to address the deployment or injury of a military service member in their family. The Republican-backed plan ignores the needs of these workers.

This plan would force workers to put their own retirement security at risk so they can take that critical leave. This #FalseChoice is one people should never be forced to make, and there is evidence that it would be especially harmful to women. Women are more likely than men to take paid leave, because they are often the primary caregivers in their families, and are also more dependent on Social Security when they retire. Women’s Social Security retirement benefits are already modest and lower than men’s on average, so women would be hit even harder by a delay or reduction of benefits.

Under the Republican-backed plan, women who need to take paid parental leave now will be punished down the road when they need to access their retirement benefits. This is not the best we can do as a nation. Workers, their families, and businesses in this country deserve better. In contrast, the FAMILY Act is a real solution that would help women and families to balance work and life responsibilities. It will bolster economic security by leaving our Social Security program intact. It will help to create a stronger and healthier workforce. It will be good for businesses large and small. And, bonus: it doesn’t force women, or any workers, to make a gut wrenching #FalseChoice to either jeopardize the health of their families, or their own retirement security. That’s a plan we can all get behind.