There’s one key step Congress could take to help the millions of women struggling to care for children at home due to school and day care closures, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) told HuffPost: pass paid sick and family leave in the next COVID-19 relief package.
Millions of women have left the workforce since the start of the pandemic, and this could stem the tide.
“This is an idea whose time has not only come, but one that is an elegant solution to the epidemic we’re in right now,” said Gillibrand, who has long advocated for paid leave.
Gillibrand, along with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), sent a letter to the incoming Biden administration and congressional leaders on Wednesday, urging them to prioritize paid leave.
Emergency paid leave provisions passed in Congress with bipartisan support in March, but the benefits expired at the end of the year. And those measures only covered workers at some small businesses. The U.S. is among the few developed countries that do not mandate paid time off to sick workers.
In their letter, the lawmakers pressed President-elect Joe Biden, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and incoming Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to extend that leave and expand it to cover more workers.
“We need people who are sick to be able to afford to stay home in order to curb the spread of the virus, and to keep their jobs to be able to provide for their families,” they wrote.
HuffPost spoke with Gillibrand on Wednesday about paid leave, how the Senate can balance COVID-19 relief and impeachment, and various other crises facing the new administration.
Does it feel like an uphill battle around paid leave at a time like this, when there’s just so much going on?
I think it will feel less like an uphill battle after the inauguration. I’m going to work very hard next week, to make sure it is included in the next COVID package.
Why prioritize paid leave? There’s also vaccine rollout, state and local aid and extending unemployment.
Obviously, they’re all extremely high priorities. But one of the most significant facts is that last month there were 140,000 jobs lost in the United States. And that job loss was 100% women. Most were women of color.
So we are in a crisis in this country, where women wage earners are losing their jobs, losing their ability to provide for their family, and losing their long term earning potential.
One of the best ways to fix that issue is to offer universal paid leave to all workers.
COVID and this epidemic and the economic collapse have really fallen on the shoulders of a lot of women. Because when children aren’t allowed to go to school because of COVID, [women are] often designated immediately as the caregiver who has to stay home.
How do you envision the Senate balancing this COVID relief package with an impeachment trial?
Well, the impeachment trial is necessary because of the crimes and misdemeanors committed by President Trump. You certainly can walk and chew gum at the same time.
I believe you can absolutely complete our work on this COVID package. At the same time, we can start a trial to convict President Trump of inciting violence, of inciting a riot, inciting sedition, as well as the efforts he made to undermine the electoral results in Georgia.
It’s not that difficult to write the COVID bill now. We’ve been working on this bill since May, since the House introduced a robust COVID package. The Senate has been trying to perfect those ideas.
Why did pay leave expire in the first place? It’s such a no-brainer.
First of all, [it’s] something that Mitch McConnell has never cared about. And we’ve been unable to convince Senate Republicans to care about. Second, there’s not enough women in Congress. That is an impediment, because, again, not all members of Congress understand the disproportionate impact COVID’s placed onto the shoulders of women and caregivers.
What would this paid leave look like?
First of all, it would apply to all workers. It wouldn’t just be limited to small businesses. Secondly, it would apply to all life events. So whether you have to stay home because of COVID or you have a family member who has to stay home because of COVID or a child who has to stay home because schools are closed or you’re sick yourself, you are entitled to up to three months paid at 66% of your wage to meet those needs. And it would extend to the end of the pandemic.
Do you envision a more permanent paid leave law happening now that Democrats have the Senate? If the impediment was basically Mitch McConnell as majority leader, now that’s gone.
Correct. Now the bill can be authored in part by Chuck Schumer and Patty Murray, two people who deeply care about national paid leave. And the tiebreaker will be Kamala Harris, who equally is passionate about paid leave, as is President Biden.
“He continues to show no contrition. And he continues to not see that he is the instigator of this violence.”
What else do you want to see in a relief package?
Oh, I want to see a great deal of resources for cities and states. I want to make sure there’s provisions for food stamps and food assistance, because there’s a lot of hunger in my state and in the country right now. I want to make sure we fund the health force to implement a vaccination program around the country, because the pace for getting vaccines out is unacceptable. And if we can hire hundreds of thousands more workers, and train them to support our nurses, and doctors and do these vaccinations, through centralized locations, we can get more vaccines.
With regard to vaccine roll out, it seems like it’s a mess.
It’s an absolute mess, it is inadequate, it is too slow. It was poorly planned. And these are all failings of the Trump administration.
I’m curious about other priorities of the Senate and the Biden administration after COVID relief. And one thing I’ve heard is that universal pre-K is on the agenda.
I hope so. Mothers and fathers cannot go back to work if you don’t restore day care. We’ve lost so many day care centers because of the epidemic. As small businesses, they’ve been unable to survive. They didn’t get resources for the additional PPE or the additional [social distancing] needs. Before the pandemic, for every four children looking for day care spots, there was only one spot. Now, for every eight children that are looking for a spot, there’s only one spot. So the need has exponentially grown.
And so the care economy needs to be addressed directly. And we need to pay our caregivers more. We need to pay people who are full time caregivers, and we need to make sure our daycare workers are paid above the minimum wage and have real careers.
It seems like every policy you were banging the drum about before COVID, COVID has made it clear just how necessary they are.
So necessary. It’s very frustrating. If they would just listen.
On a separate note: How scared are you about members of Congress being attacked ― or worse ― at the inauguration? What’s your level of fear? What was it last week? And what is it now?
I’m not afraid. I was not afraid last week for my own safety, but I have deep concerns that we will be attacked again. And I have voiced those concerns. Our national security team is far more prepared for the next set of protests and possible violence and riots than they were on the sixth. So I’m grateful for that work and effort.
But I’m still very concerned that there will be further violence, which is one of the reasons why I support not only impeachment, but Article 25, as well as for prosecution of President Trump. He continues to show no contrition. And he continues to not see that he is the instigator of this violence.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.