The Progressive Policy That Should Be Getting Headlines

While everyone argues about "Medicare for All," real progress is happening on paid family leave. Time to pay attention.

This week was a big one on the progressive policy front for an issue that isn’t getting the kind of headlines some other flashy ideas are grabbing.

Guaranteed paid family leave, the notion that working Americans need time off to care for a new baby, other family members or themselves, is moving closer to becoming a reality. If it succeeds, it could finally put the U.S. in line with other developed countries and help the millions of Americans currently forced to lose income or skip caring for family or themselves due to a lack of leave.

On Monday night, Congress announced a bipartisan deal that will give 2.1 million federal workers access to 12 weeks of paid parental leave ― something they desperately need.

Then on Tuesday, a new national coalition of advocacy groups launched an initiative called Paid Leave For All, which aims to get a comprehensive policy passed by 2023. The nonprofit group, which is made up of longtime activists from various national and local groups, will centralize fundraising, share staff and coordinate strategy on the issue.

That same day, Congress held its third hearing this year on paid family leave. The hearing was the first Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) convened as chair of the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

It’s notable that Maloney chose paid leave as her opener. She kicked off proceedings by recounting how she had asked about the parental leave policy at her office when she was pregnant with her first child many years ago.

“Do you know what they said? They said: Leave? What leave? Women just leave. We expect you to leave,” Maloney recounted at the hearing. “That was an unacceptable answer then and it’s an unacceptable answer now for families across the country.”

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) says she was told, "We expect you to leave," when she asked about parental leave policy while pregnant with her first child.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) says she was told, "We expect you to leave," when she asked about parental leave policy while pregnant with her first child.
Bill Clark via Getty Images

And yet that’s still the reality. The U.S. is the only developed country in the world that doesn’t guarantee paid time off to new mothers. One-quarter of them are back on the job just a couple weeks after having a baby. Many are still forced out of work when they’re expecting.

While some companies have started offering paid leave in recent years, it’s high-income workers who’ve gotten the benefit. Just 19% of workers in the private sector get paid family leave, according to 2019 data from the Labor Department. That’s a six-point jump from 2014, but most of the increase was for the highest wage-earners. At the top income level, 34% of workers get paid leave now, compared to 22% five years ago. For low-wage workers, just 6% get paid leave, up two points.

One big reason paid leave is picking up momentum now is likely because more Democratic women are actually lawmakers. Freshmen star Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) all sit on Maloney’s committee and questioned witnesses.

“As a feminist and as a witness, it was heartening to see all of the women,” said Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow for paid leave policy and strategy at New America who testified this week and at several similar hearings over the past few years. It was “exciting” to have that perspective, she said.

Shabo, like many other paid leave advocates, said she is glad to see so much momentum behind the issue. Democratic presidential candidates were even asked about paid family leave at the most recent debate ― the first time this cycle.

Shabo is hoping it’s a topic again in the debates next week. The issue is simpler and has a better shot at passing than, say, “Medicare for All.” An incoming president could probably get paid leave passed early on in their administration, Shabo noted.

“Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pointed out that we give dogs more time to bond with newborn puppies than we do to new mothers and their babies.”

A Pew survey from 2017 showed that an overwhelming majority of Americans support paid leave ― with the most support for time off for people to take care fo their own health issues. However, there is still a split on how to pay for such leave. At the state level, the issue has had a lot of momentum and bipartisan support: Connecticut and Oregon became the seventh and eighth states to pass the benefit this summer.

“It’s not crazy to think at some point, someone will realize that’s it’s much easier to get a quick win on paid family and medical leave than Medicare for All,” Shabo said.

That would mean Americans would have access to a new benefit just a few years later: “A huge political boon,” she said.

Republicans have also voiced support for paid parental leave. Later this week, the White House ― with President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump pushing on the issue ― will hold a summit on paid leave.

Don’t break out into a bipartisan “Kumbaya” yet, though. The key Democratic lawmakers who have been working on paid family leave for years, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), were not invited to Trump’s paid leave event. Nor has Ivanka Trump actually backed any “paid leave” proposals that don’t involve Americans simply borrowing money from their retirement or their tax refunds to help fund leave.

And none of the Republican ideas go beyond parental leave to include the millions of workers who need time off to care for their children when they’re older, or for their ailing family members, or for themselves if they become ill.

Some conservatives are still arguing that the free market will take care of this issue ― though it clearly has not.

At Tuesday’s hearing, responding to questions Ocasio-Cortez, a research fellow from the Heritage Foundation named Rachel Grezler argued that companies should get to decide whether to offer paid leave. (Earlier in the day, Grezler had also said that she didn’t believe in the minimum wage for similar reasons.)

Ocasio-Cortez pointed out that we give dogs more time to bond with newborn puppies than we do to new mothers and their babies.

“So the market has decided that women and people who give birth deserve less time with their children than a dog,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “And I think that that, at its core, has shown that the market has failed to treat people with dignity and with basic respect.”