The Ideological Battle Over Regulating Paid Family Leave

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Debate about paid family leave revolves around three very different proposals.

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A father wants to take time off to bond with his new baby at home, but his employer only offers paid maternity leave. A daughter only has a month to spend with her ailing father in the last stage of his life, but she cannot afford to take time off work to care of him. A couple has adopted a baby, but their employers do not provide any paid family leave for the birth or adoption of a child.

What do all these families have in common? They want the United States to join its economic peers and offer paid family leave.

Most people – 88 percent of Democrats and 71 percent of Republicans – agree that employers should offer paid family leave. Policy experts have found that paid leave would encourage mothers to rejoin the workforce after childbirth, reduce poverty for disadvantaged mothers, and reduce turnover of employees. Encouraging paternal leave could also decrease income and career inequities in the workplace between men and women.

Yet, according to one survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 14 percent of civilian workers had access to paid family leave in 2016. The one federal law regarding family leave, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), applies to larger employers and only guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave. This year, federal officials proposed three different policies to expand paid family leave coverage, but the programs differ greatly due to ideological differences about the role of regulation.

President Donald Trump made paid family leave an issue during his campaign and has proposed a plan since taking office, but it may not be an effective policy. The Trump Administration’s plan would give states funding to administer paid family leave through their unemployment insurance programs. The plan would also cover new mothers, fathers, and adoptive parents but would only require states to provide six weeks of paid parental leave.

Critics of the Trump Administration plan have noted that this plan could require states to raise taxes. In addition, state unemployment insurance systems already have more work than they can handle, and in many states the rate of unemployment insurance is too low to provide significant aid to new families. Furthermore, opponents have questioned the constitutionality of the plan because the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a similar requirement for states to expand their Medicaid programs in the Affordable Care Act.

Republicans in Congress have alternatively suggested making paid family leave optional by providing a tax credit for employers who offer paid family leave to their employees. The Strong Families Act would allow employers to claim a 25 percent nonrefundable tax credit for every hour of paid leave they offer to employees, up to 12 weeks. It is unclear how effective this policy would be or how many employers would view this as sufficient incentive to begin offering paid family leave. Of the three programs, the tax credit is the least comprehensive because it would not mandate paid family leave; but, it would still cover both workers caring for new children and seriously ill family members.

Finally, the Democrats in Congress have proposed creating a new Federal Family and Medical Leave Insurance Trust Fund in the U.S. Department of the Treasury and an Office of Paid Family and Medical Leave within the U.S. Social Security Administration. These new institutions would administer paid family leave to every worker who qualifies for unpaid leave under the FMLA. The program would take a small contribution from both the employer and employee every week to build up the Trust Fund, and it would provide for 12 weeks of paid leave.

Perhaps most surprising, these three plans are similar in several important ways. All offer paid leave and cover adoption as well as paternal leave. The Trump Administration and Democratic plans intend to replace approximately 46 percent or 66 percent of income, respectively, during the paid leave. The Democratic and Republican congressional plans would also provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave and would include coverage for care of an ill family member.

The most significant difference between these three plans is their implementation mechanisms. These differences arise due to ideological concerns about regulation.

The Trump Administration consistently emphasizes federalism concerns, and its plan offers states flexibility to administer paid leave as they see fit. Congressional Republicans worry about imposing new regulations on employers and want businesses to have the ability to make their own independent decisions, so their plan keeps paid family leave optional. Democrats believe in the power of the federal government to administer uniform programs, so their plan is the most top-down suggestion for implementing paid leave.

These ideological differences might not be overcome any time soon. Paid family leave proposals have been introduced in Congress for over a decade and have yet to get anywhere. Both the Strong Families Act and the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act have been introduced in the House and Senate.

Even with bipartisan support for reform in general, the stark differences in competing plans make it seem unlikely that this year will see passage of legislation on paid family leave.