If you’re part of the 40 percent of American workers without paid family leave, sorry: Whether caring for a newborn infant or healing from a heart attack, many workers today must weigh their health needs against their economic needs.
Since only a small portion of workers currently have employer-sponsored paid leave, dueling Republican and Democrat proposals for paid-family-leave legislation are emerging in Congress. Our current federal laws guarantee only unpaid leave time, which means workers can lose their jobs or their income for taking just a few weeks off to keep their families healthy. Senator Marco Rubio and other conservatives are peddling a plan that would finance workers’ leave by taking money away from the retired. Inspired by right-wing model proposals, the scheme counters previous legislation, supported by liberal lawmakers, for national paid-leave insurance with comprehensive family benefits. That broader plan builds on state-based paid-leave schemes in California, Connecticut, and other states, which are already operating successfully.
But Republicans prefer the “budget neutral” alternative that would rob the public coffers, rather than increase taxes. Meanwhile, progressives warn that the Rubio proposal, which was crafted in collaboration with Ivanka Trump (and echoes a conservative childcare tax-credit plan proposed earlier this year), would result in an even more exclusionary, underfunded patchwork of extremely limited benefits for families’ health-care needs.
There’s a dire need for some kind of system to support the millions of workers who, from their first day at their first job to the day they retire, face the pressure of sacrificing their income in order take time needed to cope with health needs. (Tens of millions of workers can’t even take a single paid sick day off from work.) But instead of an equitable nationwide system of sustainable public benefits with federal oversight, the Rubio paid-leave proposal is designed to make two of the most vulnerable groups subsidize each other, funding limited paid leave for new parents by raiding Social Security for seniors. If every paid day of sick leave that workers take ends up shrinking your days of retirement support, you end up undermining grandma’s nest egg to help parents care for their newborns.
The limitations of the legislation, according to both conservative and progressive analysts, will have regressive impacts on both ends of the life cycle. Both progressive and conservative analyses suggest that the plan would will significantly weaken Social Security finances.
The plan would hurt poorer women, who often work in short-term and precarious jobs and need support the most when taking time for family care. Nationally, just one in 20 women in the lowest income bracket qualify for any form of wage-protected leave, compared to more than one fifth of workers in the top-earning quarter of workers. The Republican compromise, according to progressive analysts, would lead to an even more stratified workforce and would exclude the most economically (and medically) insecure families.
“Every day you take is a cut from your future retirement,” says Ellen Bravo of the advocacy group Family Values @ Work, “so the danger is women, and particularly birth mothers, will take more leave than men, because they would need it to heal as well as to bond with the child.” She added that because of systemic discrimination against women, “employers would assume that women rather than men would take it, and disadvantage women in hiring…. therefore, it would add to both the wage and other disparities by gender.”
The plan to extract funds from Social Security adds insult to injury on the gender wage gap, since aging women are especially dependent on Social Security. Today, adding up all sources of retirement income, including private pensions, benefits and savings, women and men over age 65 face an even larger income gap than the typical workforce gender pay gap (which is also exacerbated by racial and ethnic disparities in household wealth). Moreover, women tend to shoulder the bulk of the care burden for children as well as older family members.
According to the Century Foundation, the plan would undermine economic security for women in every stage in life, pointing out that gender divides in retirement security “is due to the time many mothers take off from their careers to raise children—a decision that is less of a choice than a necessity for many families due to the high price of child care and perpetuated trends that expect mothers to be the ones that sacrifice their careers for child care duties.”
While families deserve help with newborn’s care, making aging family members poorer is a dubious way to support the health of working families.
In contrast, progressive lawmakers have for years been pushing for the FAMILY Act, which would provide a social-insurance scheme paid for by a small additional payroll tax. The plan would cover long-term family medical needs for up to 12 weeks, and replace up to two-thirds of income. This would help narrow the gender pay gap; cover a full array of family members, as well as workers’ self care, to support the whole household; and be funded through a progressive tax akin to Social Security and Medicare taxes: added to the payroll and accumulating into a national trust fund.
Bravo explains: “They’re contributing to a fund, which, over a lifetime, isn’t very much contribution on their part and makes it possible for them to weather that lifetime event without going broke.”
Like a single-payer health-care system, the plan offers a streamlined, government-administered system that is universal in scope. Workers would pay only about $1.50 a week toward a healthier future. A large majority of small business owners surveyed also support a universal tax-funded paid leave insurance system. Research indicates paid leave plans can improve workforce retention and enable industries to build healthy, stable workplaces over time, sustaining careers and businesses together.
Why wouldn’t a lifetime paid-leave plan be seen as something that benefits all of society, at every stage in life? The idea of taking money from seniors to pay for working parents’ needs perfectly embodies the trade-off that corporate America prefers to ensure that their profits, not our families, stay healthy.