The U.S. is creeping closer to an actual paid family leave law, perhaps finally catching up to every other industrialized country in offering time off to new parents to recover from childbirth and bond with their children.
On Wednesday morning, the House Ways and Means Committee will hold its first full hearing devoted exclusively to the topic, following a year and a half of forward momentum on the issue.
And yet don’t expect Wednesday’s hearing to grab massive media attention. You’re far more likely to hear about moonshot legislation like “Medicare for All” or the Green New Deal ― or, of course, the possible impeachment of the president.
The generous explanation for this would be that there’s not a lot of controversy on this issue. Democrats are already behind paid leave and all of the party’s 2020 presidential contenders who serve in Congress are backing the Family Act proposed by fellow candidate Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). Even Republicans are coming around.
But a more nuanced look reveals another familiar culprit.
“I legitimately think sexism is a huge part of this,” said Jess Morales Rocketto, the executive director of Care in Action, a nonprofit that advocates for domestic workers.
Because paid family leave is associated with babies and caregiving, it’s thought of as a women’s issue. And women’s issues are historically neither valued as much nor treated as seriously as other types of economic matters.
“This is the election of big ideas, so people need a big idea,” Morales said. “Am I surprised that a thing that’s mostly about women is not considered a big idea?” she added. “Definitely not.”
Morales emphasized that paid leave is indeed a game-changing idea ― a health care policy that would have an immediate impact on the lives of workers, both men and women.
“Sexism is most definitely at play in whose contributions and needs are recognized in our country, and you can see that sexism play out in which policies get headlines and which don’t,” said Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, a co-founder of the advocacy group MomsRising.
Local candidates talked about paid leave a lot during the 2018 elections, said Amanda Litman, a Democratic operative and co-founder of Run for Something. But the national elections are a different story.
“Because it’s a woman’s issue, it’s not getting traction,” said Litman, noting that while the women running for the 2020 nomination are highlighting these issues ― Gillibrand with her legislation and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has also put out an expansive child-care policy idea ― they’re not seeing a lot of pickup.
Litman said she’s also noticed that the candidates are not really talking about another critical women’s issue ― what they’d do to protect Roe v. Wade.
There’s no denying the momentum of the paid leave movement. The Senate held its own paid leave hearing last year at the prodding of presidential adviser Ivanka Trump. All the 2020 Democratic presidential contenders support paid leave. Over the past year, Republicans in Congress have also acknowledged the country needs some kind of paid leave law and introduced their own (flawed) bills. Even the business community is coming around, with more and more companies offering or increasing their own benefits.
All the Democratic members of the Ways and Means Committee, including Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.), support the Family Act ― which would use a small payroll tax to fund time off for new parents, caregivers and those dealing with their own serious illness.
In short: This thing is on. Paid leave has a chance of making it through the Democratic-controlled House now. It’s not inconceivable it could grab bipartisan support in the Republican-controlled Senate. If Democrats take the White House in 2020 and perhaps pick up more Senate seats, the Family Act might be the first piece of serious legislation that President Sanders/Biden/Warren/Whoever signs.
That would follow the route laid out 26 years ago when President Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act into law less than a month after he took the oath of office. The legislation, which gives Americans unpaid time off, had been vetoed twice before by his predecessor, President George H.W. Bush, and was primed for rapid passage in Congress in early 1993.
“We’re teeing it up and there’s a real possibility of a strong version of it to pass in the House this year and lay the groundwork for those other developments to happen,” said Ellen Bravo, co-director of Family Values @ Work, a network of 27 state coalitions working for paid family and medical leave.
Bravo said that while the perception of paid leave as a women’s issue lingers, she’s seen her coalition broaden over the years to include more men, as well as groups concerned with caring for the elderly and the disabled. It’s also an important issue for same-sex couples and transgender workers.
One key thing to watch for at Wednesday’s hearing will be the conversation around whom paid leave will cover. While the Republican bills floated so far only include new parents, Democrats are looking to pass legislation that lets workers take paid time when they become sick or need to care for aging relatives.
One scheduled witness, Marisa Howard-Karp, a young mother and a member of MomsRising, plans to talk about how she desperately needed paid time off a few years ago when her father had two major strokes at the same time that her mother was diagnosed with brain cancer. She was trying to care for both of them ― and two children of her own ― and her parents didn’t have access to leave either.
“Working moms and families need paid leave in both the best and worst of times ― when they welcome a new child, care for a seriously ill relative, or recover from illness,” said Rowe-Finkbeiner.