Editor’s Note: Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat, is the junior US senator from New York. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
On Thursday, the President’s daughter and senior advisor, Ivanka Trump, will host a summit at the White House to push for what is being billed as “paid parental leave.” I’ve met with Ms. Trump, and while I believe she is earnest about this issue, this administration has done nothing more than pay lip-service to paid family leave. Thursday’s photo op is designed to push plans that don’t even come close to being adequate.
The United States needs paid family and medical leave. Badly. We are the only industrialized country in the world that doesn’t guarantee its workers some form of paid leave.
Not only is this morally wrong, but it hurts our economy. Many of the wealthiest companies offer paid leave because it creates a more competitive and productive workplace and helps them attract top talent. Employees perform better when they don’t have to worry about choosing between earning a living or caring for a loved one or themselves. In fact, small businesses are at a competitive disadvantage because they cannot afford to provide the same benefits as bigger competitors.
Unfortunately, the White House-backed proposals fall short of true paid family and medical leave and would do little to meet the real needs of American families.
The nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analyzed one of the proposals, the “Advancing Support for Working Families Act,” and found “it provides no net new financial help for families.” It is essentially a payday loan, which must be paid back over a decade by forfeiting benefits from the Child Tax Credit.
Worse yet, other administration-backed proposals, like last year’s Economic Security Act for New Parents (reintroduced this year as the New Parents Act), would ask workers to cut into their future Social Security benefits in order to receive paid family leave in the present.
At a time when we need to be strengthening Social Security, this perverse tradeoff does the opposite. Finally, these ideas only cover new parents, excluding individuals with their own serious health concerns or those caring for a sick parent, spouse or child.
I take this issue personally. When I got pregnant with my first son, Theo, I was working as a lawyer. I needed time to recover and care for my baby, but I was shocked to learn that my firm had no policy for paid family and medical leave. So I changed it, writing our firm’s first-ever parental leave policy.
Now, in the Senate, I’m attempting to do the same thing for all American workers, for all family events.
In 2013, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro and I introduced the FAMILY Act, which, unlike the White House proposals, doesn’t require people to borrow against their future earnings to cover today’s health emergencies. The FAMILY Act would ensure that every worker can take up to 12 weeks of paid leave for a personal or family medical emergency or the addition of a child to the family. It creates a fully separate earned benefit, a self-sustaining family insurance program funded through small contributions by employers and employees, for $2 a week each — about the cost of a cup of coffee. I often ask employers, “wouldn’t you buy your employees one cup of coffee a week to ensure this benefit is there when they need it?” The answer was always a resounding yes.
This proposal has momentum. According to Data for Progress, “two-thirds of US voters (66 percent) support a program providing up to twelve weeks of paid leave for serious personal or family health issues or to care for a new child, which would be paid for through a payroll tax increase.” Data for Progress found that not only do these numbers include significant majorities of Democrats and independents, but even a near majority of Republicans supported such a program.
Last week, House Democrats were able to put parental leave for all federal workers into the National Defense Authorization Act, an annual defense spending bill. The bill was passed on Wednesday. Once enacted, this means the nation’s largest employer will now provide parental leave to more than 2 million American workers. It is a huge first step, but it is my hope that paid leave for other family emergencies will be added in the future, to cover all of life’s unexpected medical events.
The proposals being highlighted at today’s summit would support a far less generous benefit for American workers. We do a great disservice to them if we settle for half measures when the true goal is in sight. Full paid family and medical leave is an idea whose time has come, and we owe it to the American people to get it done.