D.C. introduces paid leave: Why 2016 could (finally) be family leave's election

Washington, D.C., introduced bill on Tuesday that would make it the first US city to mandate paid family leave for all its residents. Meanwhile, both Republicans and Democrats are embracing paid family leave as a campaign issue.

Michael Dwyer/AP, Jose Luis Magana/AP
Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont and Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida are both embracing paid family leave as a campaign issue.

When Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders announced he was making paid family and sick leave part of his presidential campaign platform, it was not terribly surprising. Paid leave is a popular cause célèbre among Democrats and left-leaning policy advocates, and President Obama and congressional Democrats are pushing to implement it nationwide.

It was perhaps more unexpected when Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R) announced his own proposal last month.

Not only are 2016 candidates on both sides of the aisle taking a serious look at paid leave, Washington, D.C., on Tuesday introduced a bill that would make it the first United States city to fund paid family leave for its residents. The bill, which is considered likely to pass, would make all full- and part-time workers eligible for 16 weeks paid leave for illness, to care for a family member, or after the birth or adoption of a child.

Polls show the former political non-starter also enjoys broad support among Americans of all political stripes. And lately, they’ve been taking that support to the ballot box. During last year’s mid-term elections, Massachusetts voted in a measure requiring businesses with at least 11 employees to provide up to 40 hours of paid sick leave. Similar laws passed in Trenton and Montclair, N.J., and Oakland, Calif., that election cycle, following earlier passage of sick leave laws in cities like San Diego and New York.  

“Every place that paid sick days was on the ballot in 2014, it won,” says Heather Boushey, chief economist for the Washington Center for Equitable Growth,” a left-leaning think tank. “This gets people to the polls.”  

Spinning that local goodwill into concrete national policy may be politically viable for the first time in decades, political scientists and economists say. The success of state-run programs, combined with Americans' intensifying focus on worker treatment, could pave the way for paid family leave to take the jump from a pretty but shallow campaign talking point to something more serious in 2016 and beyond.

“If you had asked me a year ago, I would have said no chance,” says Christopher Ruhm, a leading researcher on the impact of paid leave policies and a professor of economics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “But I’ve gone from thinking it’s extremely unlikely to thinking there’s a reasonable chance, and there’s such a great support for it.”

Public support, political roadblocks

Eighty-one percent of likely 2016 voters (including 94 percent of Democrats, 80 percent of Independents, and 65 percent of Republicans) support workplace rules offering paid time to care for loved ones, according to a January poll from Make it Work, an advocacy group for expanded worker benefits. An Associated Press-GfK poll from February found that two-thirds of voters (including a majority of Republicans) think employers should be required to offer paid time off for the birth of a child. And that seems to be growing: a 2009 national poll from Lake Research Partners found a 76 percent support rate for paid family leave.

Despite this broad-based support, the United States is the only developed country in the world that doesn’t mandate some form of paid sick or family leave for its workers. (The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), provides for 12 unpaid weeks’ time off, but only about 60 percent of the workforce qualifies.)
Some of that is an outgrowth of Americans’ self-reliant streak, experts say.

Compared with other nations, “we may be uniquely reluctant toward [accepting] mandated federal benefits,” says Professor Ruhm.

Ocean State success

But on the state level, the issue has some traction. Rhode Island began offering a state-run paid family leave program to its workers in January 2014, 15 months before Leeanne Instasi had her first child. The program, which partially funds at least four weeks of time off to care for a child or family member,  allowed her 10 weeks of paid time off after giving birth, paid for by a payroll tax into the state’s disability insurance fund.

“I felt like I could recover without having to stress about money, which was really nice,” says Ms. Instasi, who works as a business analyst for CVS Health.

Without the program, she says she would have been able to string together a few weeks of paid vacation and sick days, but “mentally I would have had to take more [unpaid time] because you are drained to the max,” she says. “Going back to work that soon is unhealthy and not good for your mind.”

It’s early yet, but a year and a half in, paid leave looks to be a boon for new moms like Ms. Instasi and other workers that need time off to care for a family member, such as an elderly parent. An estimated 5,000 Rhode Island workers filed an estimated $6.3 million in paid leave claims in the program’s first year.

It’s understandably popular with residents, and despite dire warnings from the paid leave bill’s opponents in the lead-up to its passage, the financial impact so far on the state’s businesses is minimal. CVS Health, Ms. Instasi’s company, is headquartered on the outskirts of Providence and says it has had 200 of its more than 7,000 workers receive leave compensation. The state’s largest private employer, the Lifespan network of hospitals, told the Associated Press in May that 500 of its more than 10,000 workers had taken benefits under the program, and it was a  “nonissue.” California and New Jersey, the only two other states that offer the benefit, have reported similar results.

President Obama praised the state for having the “right idea” when it comes to helping its residents balance work and family obligations. Even some of the
program’s former political opponents have come around. “Republican state Sen. Christopher Scott Ottiano … opposed the bill out of fear it would be onerous for businesses, but he said his thinking is ‘evolving,” AP reported in May. “Ottiano, a doctor, has seen how the program has helped many of his patients.” Senator Ottiano did not reply to requests for comment from the Monitor.

Competing solution

Historically, lawmakers, particularly in a Republican-controlled Congress, have been loath to advance any legislation with any whiff of the federal government meddling in the financial affairs of private businesses. The current version of the FMLA floundered for a decade, thanks to vehement opposition from business interests and the GOP, before President Clinton signed it into law in 1993. (Twenty-two years in, business interests are still critical of the law, but they aren’t actively working against it).

That stems from the reality that a federal family leave program in any form would cost money, by way of higher tax hikes, subsidies, and new government jobs to manage such a program. “Whether you’re talking about the government mandating it, or even if they’re subsidizing it, there’s a cost that has to come from somewhere,” says Diane Lim, an economist with the Committee for Economic Development, a moderate Washington think tank.

Indeed, a Democrat-sponsored bill for paid federal leave benefits, the FAMILY Act, has languished in Congress over the past few sessions.

Still, worker treatment is a potent issue these days, both politically and in the private sector, as an improved job market forces companies to compete for a tighter pool of workers with promises of higher wages and expanded benefits. Paid leave policies are becoming part of that conversation. Earlier this year, both Google and Netflix announced they would offer certain employees up to a year of paid parental leave.

Senator Sanders is running on a platform granting 10 days paid vacation and 12 weeks’ paid family and sick leave to qualified employees. But Republicans also are beginning to take up the mantle of paid leave as a matter of family values. Senator Rubio’s plan would leave it up to businesses, offering tax incentives to those that offer paid leave to their employees.

“We know the greatest gift parents can give their children is the time we spend together,” Rubio said in a speech introducing the plan at a Washington voters’ summit. Taking the unpaid leave granted by the FMLA “is simply not a viable financial option for many Americans,” he added.
In March, Republican senators reintroduced a bill that would give hourly workers the option to put overtime hours toward paid leave, instead of extra compensation.

“It’s fantastic that both the left and the right are talking about this issue, but some employers have a labor force that is more likely to need paid family leave,” says Ms. Boushey. Of Rubio’s plan, she says it would be difficult to ensure that the tax break actually reached the businesses that needed the tax break, not just providing an extra boost for already well-heeled companies competing for top-level employees.  

On the other end of the political spectrum, congressional Democrats’ FAMILY Act would offer up a national version of Rhode Island’s disability insurance model. Many economists, including Ruhm, believe this is the best way to ensure the benefit is accessible to low-income families that need it most. Others have advocated letting states set up their own programs, but doing so in most states would be messier than it was in California or Rhode Island, because those states, and just three others, already have a payroll tax-funded disability insurance fund. The 45 states without a disability insurance fund would have to figure out funding and administration anew.

Finding a middle ground between those philosophies – incentivizing the private market take care of it versus a state or national mandate – could still be years away.

But Ruhm thinks it’s getting closer.

“In the past, it was a political talking point. It seems more serious now,” he says.

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