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Democrats renew push for national paid family and medical leave program

Jose Luis Pelaez Inc | DigitalVision | Getty Images

As Democratic lawmakers honor the anniversary of a national family and medical program for workers, they are calling for a national paid policy that would bring the U.S. in line with other industrialized nations.

This Sunday, Feb. 5, marks the 30th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act, legislation that lets workers who qualify take unpaid time off from their jobs to care for loved ones or recover from their own illnesses or health conditions.

The FMLA was signed into law by former President Bill Clinton in 1993. Since then, it has allowed workers to be with their families when a child was born or when relatives were sick, Clinton said at a White House event Thursday.

“There are still a lot of problems that can’t be solved without some form of paid leave,” Clinton said.

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The anniversary comes as Democrats passed a paid leave proposal in the House in 2021. Yet those changes failed to make it into a broader legislative package.

About 56% of workers have access to unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, according to research from the Urban Institute.

Workers who are excluded include those who have been at a work site for less than a year, those whose work sites have fewer than 50 employees within a 75-mile radius and those who worked less than 1,250 hours at their employer in the past year.

“People need to understand that as great as this was, there are still a lot of people left out,” Clinton said.

‘We need paid leave’

Juggling personal responsibilities and work can lead to tough trade-offs.

Workers missed out on approximately $28 billion more in wages from March 2020 to February 2022 compared with the previous two years due to a lack of access to paid leave, research from the Urban Institute has found.

About 5 million women lost their jobs during the Covid pandemic, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., noted during a Wednesday news conference. Had a federal paid leave policy been in place, many of those women may have been able to stay employed, she said.

“Imagine if, during the pandemic, we had had a national paid leave program,” Gillibrand said.

We need to make sure we’re covering these front-line workers who are taking care of our children.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth
Democrat of IIlinois

“It would have changed everything,” she added. “We would have been able to have an economy that continued to thrive.”

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., said the gaps in protection under FMLA policy affected her family personally when she was injured while serving in the military in Iraq.

Duckworth’s husband was able to care for her by taking unpaid time off, but it cost him his contract job as a military science professor.

“As soon as his FMLA ran out, which was unpaid, they were like, ‘Thank you, you don’t need to come back,'” Duckworth said.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and Ukrainian soldier Oleksandr Chaika demonstrate their prosthetic legs. Chaika lost his leg by amputation due to a tank shell explosion in Ukraine. Duckworth lost her legs when her helicopter was shot down in Iraq.
Tom Williams | Cq-roll Call, Inc. | Getty Images

“This is how cutthroat it is out there,” she added. “We need paid leave.”

Democrats reintroduced bills on Wednesday aiming to make paid leave a federal policy, while also expanding protections to more workers under the FMLA.

The Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, or FAMILY Act, was reintroduced by lawmakers including Gillibrand and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., with the goal of creating the first paid national family and medical leave program.

The U.S. is the only industrialized nation without a paid family and medical leave policy, the lawmakers noted.

The FAMILY Act proposal calls for 12 weeks’ paid leave. It would include all types of life events and cover all caregivers, including those who are not members of an immediate family unit, Gillibrand said.

“It is a reasonable, pragmatic way to get to paid family leave,” Duckworth, who is a co-sponsor of the bill, told CNBC.com in an interview.

The plan would let both employers and employees pay into an insurance program, which would cost about $2 per week, Duckworth said. Workers would be able to take up to 80% of their salary while taking care of a family member or taking time for a personal illness.

Alongside Rep. Sean Casten, D-Ill., Duckworth also reintroduced another bill, the ESP and School Support Staff Family Leave Act, which would provide education support professionals with unpaid leave under the FMLA.

Covered workers would include school bus drivers, cafeteria workers, nurses and administrative staff who do not meet the hourly work requirements during the school year in order to qualify for FMLA coverage.

The Education Support Professionals Family Leave Act would provide education support workers such as school bus drivers with unpaid leave under FMLA.
Marilyn Nieves | Moment | Getty Images

“People don’t realize that the school nurse who’s checking your children for Covid, she does not get FMLA,” Duckworth said. “We need to make sure we’re covering these front-line workers who are taking care of our children.”

Separately, Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., and Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Ill., proposed the Job Protection Act, which would expand FMLA protections to workers who have changed jobs or are returning to the workforce, work part time or are employed by smaller employers.

State plans may influence support

Duckworth said she hopes her bill passes this year, while also pointing to the need for a federal paid leave program.

“Having gone through the pandemic, people realize how important it is to have paid family leave,” Duckworth said. “We need it to be competitive on a global scale.”

Part of the opposition to enhancing paid leave policies has come from businesses that fear it will lead to higher costs.

About 11 states and Washington, D.C., have enacted their own paid family and medical leave policies.

“As different state plans pop up, it may generate additional support for paid leave at the federal level and for a more uniform solution for all workers,” said Chantel Boyens, principal policy associate at the Urban Institute’s Income and Benefits Policy Center.

A national policy would likely help low-wage workers, who tend to be most affected by gaps in the current federal policies, she noted.

“One of the potential benefits of a national policy is you have something that applies to all workers,” Boyens said.

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