Something pretty remarkable happened late last month while the Senate was voting on the annual budget resolution. And it had very little to do with the budget.
On March 26, while individual senators were introducing amendments as part of a process known as “vote-a-rama,” Patty Murray (D-Wash.) offered up what she called a "paid sick day" proposal. Her idea is to guarantee that all Americans can take up to seven days off from work a year, with pay, in order to get better from an illness or to take care of a sick family member.
Labor unions and women’s groups love the idea. The business community pretty much detests it. That opposition helps explain why the idea has never gotten much traction in Congress, even though it's been kicked around for a long time.
Murray has taken up the leadership on the issue in the Senate, now that its previous champion, Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), has retired. But as Murray’s aides and allies tell it, the senator did not spend a lot of time trying to rally supporters or persuade wavering colleagues on this particular vote. She figured that most of her fellow Democrats would vote yes. She hoped that a handful of Republicans might do the same, so that she could claim majority support for the concept -- 51 votes, or maybe one or two more if she was really lucky.
She ended up with 61.
“We weren’t expecting to get the level of support we got," a Murray aide told The Huffington Post.
Vicki Shabo, vice president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, agreed. “There was not a big lobbying effort around this amendment,” she said. “The vote was a surprise -- but a very positive surprise.”
The breakdown of the vote was particularly interesting. In all, 14 Republicans voted to support the amendment. Conspicuous on the “ayes” list were Kelly Ayotte from New Hampshire, Mark Kirk from Illinois, Rob Portman from Ohio and several other incumbents up for reelection in states that have voted Democratic or have been up for grabs in the last two presidential elections. In fact, two such Republicans, Pat Toomey from Pennsylvania and Ron Johnson from Wisconsin, switched their votes at the last minute to join the majority.
One possible reason for the strong showing: Murray refused requests to consider the amendment on a voice vote only, according to sources familiar with what happened behind the scenes. Murray pushed for a roll call, which meant votes would be recorded -- and possible fodder in the 2016 elections. Any Republican who voted against the amendment would have to explain that vote to constituents.
This doesn’t mean paid sick leave is about to become law. The budget resolution isn’t binding legislation. It’s merely a set of instructions to congressional committees as they set out to write legislation. Amendments like Murray’s are typically vague and largely symbolic -- designed to demonstrate support for a particular idea, force adversaries to make unpopular votes, or some combination of the two.
After the vote, aides to some Republicans who voted for the bill assured reporters that their bosses were merely expressing support for the idea of paid sick leave, not any specific legislation that Murray and her allies had in mind.
But the prospect of voting against paid sick leave in the abstract obviously spooked a bunch of vulnerable Senate Republicans. That may say something about the level of political support, not just for paid sick days but also for what’s come to be known as the “working families” agenda -- an agenda that’s likely to figure prominently in the 2016 presidential campaign.
A Revolution In Family Life, Not Yet In Policy
The agenda is a reaction to a profound sociological shift in family life that’s been underway for decades.
In 1960, the majority of households with children had at least one parent at home, and the majority of women with children stayed out of the workforce. Today that’s no longer true, as more than 60 percent of households with children have no parents staying at home, and women make up nearly half the labor force. This has created new stresses and strains on families, particularly families with very young children.
These parents need time off from work, whether it's a few days to nurse a sick kid or a few months to care for a newborn. They need child care and, ideally, some kind of prekindergarten to prepare kids for school.
In pretty much every other developed country, government acts aggressively to meet these needs -- by subsidizing or directly providing early child care, for example, and by guaranteeing that parents can take time off, with pay, to care for newborns and sick relatives. That’s not the case here in the U.S., where the law requires very little, and such benefits are largely a function of whether employers offer them. That works out well enough for employees of large, generous corporations -- and not so well for everybody else.
Infographic by Alissa Scheller for The Huffington Post.
Predictably, the workers least likely to have such benefits tend to be in lower-paying industries, like fast food or retail, or those piecing together low-paying, part-time and contingent work. Paid sick days, the cause Murray is pushing, are a prime example of the kind of options these workers lack. Among people whose incomes place them into the highest quartile, 85 percent have paid sick days, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Among people in the lowest quartile, just 30 percent do.
And because responsibility for caregiving falls disproportionately to women, the inability to get paid days off or find affordable child care has forced them to make career choices -- like slowing their advancement or abandoning jobs altogether -- that reinforce gender inequality.
Efforts to bolster government programs and protections for working parents in this country have proceeded in fits and starts, thanks to a familiar set of obstacles. For one thing, initiatives typically require some combination of government regulation and spending. Those are tough to secure when either funds are scarce or Republicans, backed by corporate lobbies, have control over one branch of government -- conditions that have existed for most of the last few decades. It also hasn’t helped that, until very recently, large numbers of Americans were, at best, ambivalent about the role of women in the workplace.
The last time Congress passed a major piece of legislation with the sole purpose of helping workers balance work and family was in 1993, when the Democratic-controlled House and Senate passed the Family and Medical Leave Act, guaranteeing up to six weeks of leave for employees of large firms who needed time to care for a new baby or sick relative. It was historic legislation -- the very first bill that Bill Clinton signed as president.
Getting the law passed took a herculean political effort, spanning years, and the law has one big limitation: Because it requires companies to provide unpaid leave, not paid leave, many workers can’t afford to use it.
But political conditions change, and there are reasons to think the support for such policies may be stronger now. For one thing, the financial strain on families is greater, creating more demand for help. Child care costs may be the most vivid example. According to the Census Bureau, a working mother in 1985 could expect to pay, on average, $87 a week for child care. By 2011, that working mother could expect to pay $148 a week -- an increase of 70 percent. (Those numbers are adjusted for inflation.)
And relative to the 1980s, advocates for policies like paid leave and child care support are more likely to find lawmakers -- including men -- who understand firsthand the kind of pressure working parents face. That’s true of state legislatures and Congress and that’s true of the White House, where President Barack Obama has spoken frequently about the challenges he and Michelle faced when their kids were young and both of them had promising professional careers ahead of them.
One more factor that could help: Experts are compiling more evidence about the effect that programs like paid leave can have on businesses and the economy. Critics have long maintained that such policies would hurt employers and ultimately slow economic growth. The latest evidence suggests otherwise -- in part because such policies can improve retention and allow women, who increasingly have high skills, to stay in the workforce if they wish.
Success In The States, Struggles In Washington
Advocates for more generous child care and leave policies have already made some gains at the state and local level. Paid sick leave was on the ballot in four places last year -- three cities and one state, Massachusetts. It passed in all four. The process is taking longer at the federal level, but it's clearly underway. The White House has made work-family issues a major priority for Obama’s second term -- by issuing reports on the productivity lost when women can’t pursue career aspirations; by staging summits and other White House events on the needs of working families; and by proposing or endorsing major initiatives for universal prekindergarten, paid leave and tax credits to help parents with children.
On Capitol Hill, work-family issues have been a longtime cause for such veteran Democrats as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Rosa DeLauro from Connecticut. But particularly in the Senate, up-and-coming Democrats are staking their own claim to the agenda. Kirstin Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has been waging a crusade on behalf of paid leave, and Bob Casey (D-Penn.) recently proposed a major new tax credit for families paying for child care.
“You don’t want to blow things out of proportion,” said Heather Boushey, executive director and chief economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. “But I’ve been in D.C. since 2000 working on these issues, and it’s feeling avalanche-y. There’s a lot going on.”
The Democrats sponsoring these pieces of legislation are optimistic about the prospects for passing legislation, even with Republicans in charge of both houses of Congress. And maybe those statements aren’t quite as naive as they sound. After Obama unveiled his own version of a child care tax credit, Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell identified it as the one idea on the president’s agenda they could support.
But with Congress struggling to pass even routine legislation, and dollars for new programs in short supply, it will probably take the 2016 campaign to focus attention on these issues -- and, eventually, rally constituencies for passing laws.
Hillary Clinton, the Democrats’ likely nominee, seems poised to make this case. She has a long history of advocating for these sorts of programs, going back to the 1970s and her work with the Children’s Defense Fund. And while her demurral about paid family leave in a CNN interview last summer got lots of attention, advocates say they aren’t worried and expect a strong work-family agenda to be part of her campaign.
The big unknown is how Republicans will react -- and this is why, ultimately, the Murray vote may be more significant than the garden-variety budget measure. If the Murray vote proved anything, it’s that Republicans can read the same polls as Democrats. In a 2013 HuffPost/YouGov poll, 74 percent of respondents said they would support a requirement that all employers offer paid sick leave. Republicans recognize that voters crave stronger, more generous supports for working parents, or at least like the sound of them.
Of course, opposition to these measures remains strong. As Dave Weigel of Bloomberg pointed out, every Senate Republican also running for president voted no on Murray's amendment.
If the political pressure gets intense, the GOP could simply offer up a different agenda -- one that sounds similar to what Democrats are proposing, but actually accomplishes less. An example would be the “Working Family Flexibility Act,” which is a Republican proposal for making paid sick leave more widely available. The initiative would require that employees build up overtime hours in order to get paid leave -- and then give employers discretion over when employees can take it.
Some labor advocates consider the Republican proposal nothing more than an attempt to undermine guarantees of overtime pay, on which many low- and medium-income families rely.
Could such proposals be the basis for future compromise, if not in this Congress than in a subsequent one? Are they simply an attempt to deflect criticism from voters who want action on work-family issues? It’s difficult to know. But it’s unlikely Republicans can simply avoid these issues altogether. Democrats have taken notice of the success that Murray had. They’ll be back for more.
Dave Jamieson contributed reporting.