By Christine Stapleton The Palm Beach Post, Fla.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) On the world stage, the United States remains the only industrialized nation without federally mandated paid leave for new parents. Despite widespread support, only 16 percent of American workers have access to paid leave.
The Palm Beach Post, Fla.
During his State of the Union speech, President Donald Trump devoted a single sentence to what could be the only issue in America right now on which his devoted base and ardent foes agree: Paid parental leave.
The fleeting mention of the issue, wedged between his opinions on school choice and abortion, stated a commitment by the president to pursue paid leave for new parents but also included a self-congratulatory pat on his own back for being "the first president to include in my budget a plan for nationwide paid family leave -- so that every new parent has the chance to bond with their newborn child."
The mere mention of paid leave prompted Missouri Republican Rep. Ann Wagner to shout "YES!" and lit up social media with #paidleave.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, chair of the House Democratic Women's Working Group and organizer of group's suffragette-white fashion statement at the event, weighed in with a tweet from the House floor just 17 minutes into the president's speech.
"Agree @realDonaldTrump, we all want to give Americans an amazing quality of life & Democrats have the solutions! Let's make health care a right for all, let's offer paid family&medical leave, affordable education & rebuild our infrastructure. #SOTU," the tweet read.
Frankel followed up with another tweet from the House floor 45 minutes later, referring to a House proposal on paid family leave: "If the President is really serious about a nationwide paid family leave plan, might I suggest the #FAMILYAct? #SOTU."
If the President is really serious about a nationwide paid family leave plan, might I suggest the#FAMILYAct?#SOTU -- Rep. Lois Frankel (@RepLoisFrankel)February 6, 2019
The Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 allows eligible employees to take up to 12 work weeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period to attend to the serious health condition of the employee, parent, spouse or child, or for pregnancy or care of a newborn child, or for adoption or foster care of a child. To be eligible, a worker must have been at the business at least 12 months and worked at least 1,250 hours over the past 12 months. The act only applies to companies that employ 50 or more employees within 75 miles.
Today, polls suggest broad public support for making those leaves of absence paid ones.
About eight-in-ten Americans say mothers should have paid maternity leave, while 69 support paid paternity leave, according to a 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center. And those who favor paid maternity and paternity leave say mothers should receive considerably more time off than fathers -- a median of 8.6 weeks off for mothers versus 4.3 weeks for fathers.
There is also broader support for paid leave for workers dealing with their own serious health condition, 85 percent say workers should be paid in these situations while 67 percent favor paid leave for those caring for a family member who is seriously ill, according to the survey.
Despite widespread support, only 16 percent of American workers have access to paid leave, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. For those that do, it is often only a fraction of their take-home pay for a period far less than may be needed.
On the world stage, the United States remains the only industrialized nation without federally mandated paid leave for new parents.
Still, some companies -- mostly large corporations -- have stepped forward and voluntarily offer paid parental and family leave. Starbucks and Walmart implemented paid leave policies after workers spoke out. In the first few months of 2018, Lowe's, CVS, TJX, Dollar General, Chipotle, and Gap Inc. all bolstered paid-leave policies for hourly employees.
A 2018 employer survey by PL+US, a non-profit that provides peer-based platform for workers to advance change in the workplace, ranked Deloite, IBM and Bank of America as the top companies for paid leave benefits.
Florida based Publix ranked last. According to the survey, Publix offers no paid family leave to its 190,000 employees. In a statement emailed to the Palm Beach Post, a Publix spokeswoman said the company's "total reward strategy is to pay competitively, offer good benefits and contribute to our associates' financial security now and in retirement." However, the statement did not address the company's lack of a paid leave policy.
With so few workers covered and so few businesses voluntarily offering the benefit, the question now is whether lawmakers will have the gumption to buck powerful business interests and force it upon them.
And in Washington, that endeavor will play out in an uncharted political landscape where a pro-business, regulation-busting president is already at odds with a Democratically-controlled House energized by its new poll position and 35 newly-elected, diverse and outspoken women.
"There is broad bipartisan support across the country but there is not bipartisan policy making at the federal level," said Adrienne Schweer, Paid Family Leave fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a DC-based think tank. "Democrats and Republican are not coming together."
The Center created a task force last year headed by former U.S. Sens. Chris Dodd, a Democrat from Connecticut, and Republican Rick Santorum from Pennsylvania to help forge a bipartisan national paid family leave policy, Schweer said.
"Historically, it has been a Democratic-led topic and only Democrats had proposals in the House and Senate," said Schweer. "We're hopeful that we can create an environment where bipartisan dialogue is possible."
Trump endorsed paid parental leave during his campaign. Flanked by his daughter Ivanka, he floated a proposal to provide six weeks paid leave for birth mothers at a rally in Pennsylvania in September 2016. Trump claimed the money would come from "capturing fraud and improper payment in unemployment insurance programs."
Once elected, Trump included this proposal in his first budget. It went nowhere. One reason is that states administer their own unemployment insurance programs, some less viable than others and not fiscally sturdy enough to take on additional payouts.
However, Trump was successful in tucking a tax credit into the Republican tax bill he signed in late 2017 for qualifying businesses that offer employees up to 12 weeks of paid parental and family leave annually. Under the Paid Family Leave Tax Credit, businesses can receive a tax credit of up to 25 percent for the wages paid to employees during their leave.
But after passage of the tax bill and failure of his unemployment insurance proposal, Trump pivoted from the paid leave issue and instead dove into issues that deeply divide the country -- the border wall, the Russia investigation and withdrawing troops from Syria.
It was not until the State of the Union address that Trump raised the issue again before a national audience. For some, his fleeting mention of the issue seems to have raised more questions than it answered.
"I feel it's a sham," said Debra L. Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families. "In a way it gives him a path for checking a box he knows is enormously popular with the American people."
Judging from the widespread interest among lawmakers and the lack of any substantive progress, that may be the case with others as well.
Last year in Congress, 225 members endorsed some form of paid leave, said Schweer but no substantive legislation was passed. Among them was Florida Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio's Economic Security for New Parents Act.
The bill, introduced in August, would allow new parents to pull forward a portion of their Social Security benefits to use for paid parental leave after the birth or adoption of a child. Later in life, they would delay the date at which they begin receiving Social Security retirement benefits to make up for the amount withdrawn during their leave.