NEW YORK, NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 05: Melinda Gates speaks onstage at Oprah's SuperSoul Conversations at PlayStation Theater on February 05, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for THR)
Melinda Gates calls for paid family leave
01:41 - Source: CNN Business

Editor’s Note: Vicki Shabo is a senior fellow for paid leave policy and strategy at New America, a think tank in Washington, DC. Prior to joining New America, Shabo was vice president for workplace policy and strategy at the National Partnership for Women & Families. The views expressed here are hers. Read more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

On Wednesday, the House Ways & Means committee holds its first-ever hearing on paid family and medical leave, a topic that will touch every working person and family in the United States.

Vicki Shabo

Amid the 24-hour news cycle focused on investigations and contempt, it is possible few will notice. But for anyone who’s ever sent a child to day care too soon, left a parent in a hospital alone, received chemo treatments in the middle of a workday or had an employee with a serious family issue, this is a very big deal. It is time to pay close attention and help Congress find its way forward.

A full committee hearing like this one is an important milestone. More hearings, a markup and House passage of a strong, comprehensive, sustainable proposal would set the stage for serious consideration in the Senate and prime this kitchen-table issue for the 2020 presidential campaign.

Congress could get it right by passing an integrated, affordable plan that, according to 2018 data from the National Partnership for Women & Families, more than 80% of voters want and are willing to pay for. Congress could also get it deeply wrong, by covering only a fraction of people who need leave, sowing divisions between generations, genders and types of workers. Or momentum could stall, leaving Americans to the whims and graces of employers and subject to impossible choices between work and care.

Here are five things to watch:

1. Whether the paid leave plan Congress moves will touch 100 million-plus working people who do not have paid family leave at their jobs now. Eighty-three percent of the US workforce does not have access to employer-provided paid family leave to care for a new child or seriously ill loved one, according to 2018 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Less than 40% have employer-provided short-term disability insurance for their own serious health issues that require time off the job. Access to paid family leave is six times greater among the most highly-paid workers compared to the lowest-paid (30% versus 5%). Critics often say that these statistics are misleading by pointing to other forms of paid and unpaid time off, but BLS statistics show that workers who are the least likely to have paid family leave are also those least likely to have paid vacation, sick or personal time and also lack power in their workplace to negotiate a better deal. A strong national policy would close these gaps and set a national baseline.

2. Whether Congress understands that employer incentives and individual savings will fail to produce paid leave for all. Workers’ overall paid family leave access increased by only a slim margin from 2013 and 2018, and worse, the gap between higher and lower-wage workers grew rather than shrank. The growth in access to employer-provided temporary disability insurance is even more anemic. The past is prologue: the market isn’t going to fix the gaps and neither will continuing to put the burden on individual workers. Favored approaches of some conservatives – tax-free savings accounts, for example, where new parents can use a GoFundMe approach, provide a tax shelter for wealthy people but do nothing for the 40% of Americans who say they do not even have $400 for an emergency expense.

3. Whether Congress is open to learning from paid family leave victories in the states. Six US states and Washington DC have enacted paid family and medical leave programs, all of which are more expansive in one or more ways than any pending federal proposal. More than a dozen Ways & Means committee Democrats and Republicans from California, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and Washington represent some of these states. The programs in Massachusetts and Washington passed with significant bipartisan support. Will Congress take these state political and policy experiences into account in crafting federal policy, or will its imagination be limited by ideological gridlock and the false belief that this investment isn’t worth new spending or raising new revenue to pay for it?

4. Whether Congress recognizes the value of paid leave for small businesses. Paid leave opponents often articulate unfounded small business concerns to ward off changes to the status quo. But nationally, according to the advocacy group Small Business Majority, seven in 10 small business owners want, and are willing to help fund, a comprehensive federal plan to cover new parents, family caregiving and personal medical leaves. We must be sure history doesn’t repeat itself: when Congress passed the nation’s unpaid leave law in 1993, they excluded businesses with fewer than 50 employees; as a result, according to a report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, about 34 million people in the private sector are carved out for that reason alone.

5. Whether Congress advances a strong proposal or instead casts about for half-measures that exacerbate partisan, demographic and economic divisions. All Democratic members of the Committee on Ways & Means – and 185 House members in total – are co-sponsors of the FAMILY Act, which is modeled on state programs and would create a national paid family and medical leave fund. A plan like this would, by design, reward work and support workers’ economic security and health – values and outcomes we can all get behind. Some Republicans in Congress have agreed that federal action is necessary, which is a welcome new development. Wednesday’s hearing is a test for committee Republicans: will they run toward policy solutions, as some of their colleagues have, or will they run away?

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    At a moment when so much is broken, a well-constructed paid leave program has the potential to touch everyone and could be a baby step toward re-instilling faith in Congress as a people-focused institution.