Paid Leave, Key To Fighting Pandemic, Is Absent From Latest COVID-19 Relief Bill

The bill instead includes expanded tax credits for businesses that offer paid leave. Advocates are turning their sights toward the next recovery package.

There won’t be real paid sick or paid family leave in the upcoming COVID-19 relief bill, which is expected to pass the House later this week. That’s despite the policy’s proven effectiveness in reducing the spread of the coronavirus and the White House’s efforts to get a formal policy included in the package.

Instead, the bill will include tax credits for businesses that offer leave to employees, an expanded version of what Congress passed in December. But offering leave in exchange for a tax credit is optional, putting workers at the mercy of their employers. The credits are also temporary, and only meant to address the needs of the pandemic.

Advocates are adamant that this isn’t anywhere near the kind of substantive paid leave they’ve been pushing for over the past year. Indeed, the policy falls short of what Congress was able to pass last spring with bipartisan support.

“The biggest failure is that it’s optional,” said Debra Ness, the president of the National Partnership for Women and Families. “We don’t think tax credits are the way to fund permanent paid leave.”

Advocates like Ness and Democratic lawmakers are pushing to get something better passed in the next recovery package, which is expected after this current relief bill makes it across the finish line. They’re after a formal, permanent policy that would require companies to provide paid time off to workers who take sick leave or family leave.

President Joe Biden’s administration remains committed to paid leave for workers who need time to care for their own medical emergency or that of a loved one, or to spend time with a new baby, according to people close to the White House. The policy is viewed as a pivotal part of the administration’s plan to build an economy that supports caregivers long-term.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) during a press conference on child care relief bills in July 2020.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) during a press conference on child care relief bills in July 2020.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc/Getty Images

The pandemic has only underlined the need for paid family and sick leave, as millions of women have been pushed out of the labor force due to caregiving needs at home — looking after children in virtual school or home from closed child care centers. Vice President Kamala Harris has called the situation a national emergency for women.

The United States is the only developed country that doesn’t mandate paid leave.

Meanwhile, many of the essential workers tasked with going into work every day have done so without access to paid sick leave. The issue has become particularly critical for low-income workers, who are disproportionately woman and people of color.

“We cannot emerge from this pandemic and remain one of only two countries in the world with no form of national paid leave,” Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) wrote in a letter to the White House sent on Wednesday, signed by 96 House members.

They are urging the president to include robust paid leave protections in the next package.

“Paid leave is an issue of public health, economic recovery, and racial, gender, and economic justice,” the letter says. “Black and Latinx women in particular are disproportionately those who make up both frontline workers and breadwinning mothers in their households, and they are the least able to afford losing their income to care for themselves or a sick family member.”

DeLauro for years has been a leading voice in the push for paid leave, and is now the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, a powerful role that advocates say makes her well-positioned to force the issue into the spotlight.

DeLauro and Pressley, along with Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) have been banging the drum for leave throughout the past year.

“At every opportunity that they have they raise it, they push it,” Ness said, adding that the lawmakers even fought to make the tax credits more generous.

The tax credits in the current package are better than the ones Congress passed in December: They expand the benefit to include time off for those getting vaccinated. State and local governments are also eligible for the tax credits, which gives the possibility of paid leave to far more workers.

Previously, only the parents of children who were home because of school or daycare closures could get the 10 weeks off. In this version, workers can take 10 weeks off if they’ve contracted the coronavirus or need to care for someone else who has.

Although it is completely up to employers to decide whether or not to make this benefit available, the bill does say companies can’t discriminate in offering it. In other words, a company can’t simply give its salaried workers leave and not offer it to its lower paid employees, or only make it available to certain favored workers. Enforcement of this provision will be up to the Department of Labor.

In their letter to the White House, DeLauro and Pressley note that Biden prioritized paid leave in the rescue plan he initially sent over to Congress, it was dropped because of the constraints of passing the bill under the Senate’s reconciliation process, which requires only a simple majority of senators for passage.

The congresswomen are now turning their efforts toward to the next recovery package.

It’s not just paid leave. Democrats are pinning a lot of their hopes on this next legislative package, which the Biden administration has pitched as a jobs creation plan. Already, Democrats have said their priorities include substantial infrastructure investment, climate policy, and everything else that they wanted to get into the COVID-19 package but couldn’t.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and DeLauro wrote a letter to the White House urging inclusion of paid family leave in the next legislative package, after it became clear it would not be included in the forthcoming COVID-19 relief bill.
Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and DeLauro wrote a letter to the White House urging inclusion of paid family leave in the next legislative package, after it became clear it would not be included in the forthcoming COVID-19 relief bill.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc/Getty Images

But somewhat overlooked in all this planning is that the final package will either have to be a compromise with Republicans, who have previously balked at many of these proposals, or it will once again have to be pushed through via budget reconciliation. (The Senate can use reconciliation twice in 2021, according to a Brookings analysis, though typically it would pass one or even no such bills in a given year.)

This week Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said that his committee has already begun work on crafting the next budget reconciliation framework. Biden administration aides have also long been under the impression that their biggest legislative accomplishments would have to be passed on strict party lines.

If that is the case, Democrats will run up against the same limitations they faced with this latest coronavirus relief package. Senate rules are strict about what kinds of policies can be passed through reconciliation; a mandate that businesses provide paid time off doesn’t make the cut.

Advocates say that given more time, it’s possible to craft a paid leave policy that would pass muster under the reconciliation process, either in a recovery package or as a standalone bill.

The urgency in getting the current bill passed meant that they didn’t have time to structure it that way.

“[The tax credits are] the best you can do in a rescue plan passed in reconciliation,” said Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow at New America and an expert in paid leave policy.

The Family Act, legislation that would structure paid leave as social insurance, could make it through reconciliation, advocates say.

“We know that most core tenets of the Family Act, or permanent paid leave, are appropriate and possible through several paths including budget reconciliation,” said Dawn Huckelbridge, director of Paid Leave for All. “We can’t weather another pandemic and remain one of two countries in the world with no form of guaranteed paid leave protections.”

Tara Golshan contributed reporting

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