Congress is talking about paid family leave. Will they do anything? 

By: and - January 30, 2020 7:01 am
Mother holding baby and using laptop

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WASHINGTON/MADISON — Democrats and Republicans in Congress seem to agree on expanding access to paid family leave. 

But they disagree on how to do it. 

U.S. House lawmakers debated three bills on Capitol Hill this week that would take dramatically different approaches to expanding access to paid leave, with Democrats and Republicans deeply divided on the best approach. 

Congress is diving into the issue as polls show that most Americans support paid family and medical leave for all workers. 

The United States lags far behind the rest of the world when it comes to paid leave for new parents — it’s one of only two countries in the United Nations with no statutory national policy of paid maternity leave. 

Many Democrats in Congress are pushing for the FAMILY Act, which would provide all workers with family and medical leave insurance. 

Under the bill, workers would be eligible for 60 days or 12 weeks of partial income for the birth or adoption of a child, or the injury or illness of a family member. The program would be funded through a payroll tax of 2 cents for every $10 of wages.

More than 200 House Democrats have signed on to the bill, as has one Republican. Wisconsin Democratic representatives Ron Kind, Gwen Moore and Mark Pocan all signed on to the bill almost a year ago, on Feb. 13, 2019.

Some Republicans, meanwhile, are championing different proposals.

The New Parents Act would allow parents to draw on a portion of their Social Security benefits after the birth or adoption of a child in exchange for delaying or reducing future Social Security benefits. It is backed by 10 Republicans, none of them from Wisconsin, 

Rep. Bryan Steil

A bipartisan bill, the Advancing Support for Working Families Act, would allow families to draw on child tax credits for a year after the birth or adoption of a child. The bill has the support of three Democrats and five Republicans, including Wisconsin Republican Bryan Steil, in the House.

Companion measures have been introduced in the Senate. Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin supports the Senate Family Act. Thus far no Wisconsin senators have signed on to the Senate New Parents Act  or the Senate Advancing Support for Working Families Act.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin
Sen. Tammy Baldwin

While House lawmakers agreed over the general need for paid family leave, they sparred over which plan would best benefit workers and the economy.

Republicans called the FAMILY Act a “one-size-fits-all” government mandate. 

It’s “one more tax” on employees and employers, said Florida Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan, who voiced support for a tax credit instead.

Conservatives also argued that small businesses should be able to customize benefits packages to meet unique needs and said it could unfairly burden stay-at-home caregivers and people without children.

Democrats, meanwhile, praised the FAMILY Act for its economic benefits and expressed concerns over proposals that would cut worker benefits and leave people uncovered during times of emergency.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal of Massachusetts cited a study finding that a median-earning new mother who took paid leave after the birth of two children would get $11,000 in paid leave benefits but $29,000 less in Social Security benefits under the GOP proposal.

The FAMILY Act directly addresses the “two key ingredients” in gross domestic product — workforce participation and worker productivity, said Rep. Kind. “This is important for the male workforce as well,” he said, noting that it would support men’s childrearing and family caregiving responsibilities.

‘Closer than ever’

Despite their disagreements over details, lawmakers of both parties were optimistic about progress.

“This is an issue I think Republicans and Democrats can work together on,” Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, the top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, said Tuesday. 

“Paid leave is finally at the center of our public discourse,” said Connecticut Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, author of the FAMILY Act. “We are closer than ever to making this a reality for families.”

Republican Reps. Ann Wagner of Missouri and Elise Stefanik of New York — who testified on behalf of GOP-backed bills — said they were encouraged by the bipartisan interest in the issue. 

The Family and Medical Leave Act, enacted in 1993, provides certain employees job-protected unpaid leave for specified family and medical reasons. But the law does not apply to a large swath of the workforce, and many eligible employees don’t participate because they can’t afford it. 

Last month, President Donald Trump signed into law a bill that gives federal workers 12 weeks of paid leave to care for a newborn or adopted child — extending the same benefits currently given to the military to the 2.1 million civilian members of the federal workforce. The benefits take effect in October.

Eight states and the District of Columbia currently provide paid family leave. Vicki Shabo, senior fellow for paid leave policy and strategy at the Washington-based think tank New America, said she is encouraged by activity at the state level.

Tuesday’s hearing, she noted in an email, came on the same day as state-level hearings on the issue in Virginia and Pennsylvania and on the heels of other action in Idaho, New Mexico, Tennessee, New Hampshire and Vermont.

“It’s a sign of nationwide momentum,” she said.

Family leave bills stuck in Wisconsin?

Any bipartisan national momentum on FLMA does not appear to have hit Wisconsin. But the opportunity is there.

State Sen. Janis Ringhand speaks to why she is introducing the Family and Medical Leave Insurance Act, a new bill that would create a pool of employees in Wisconsin to provide paid leave for employees.
State Sen. Janis Ringhand speaks to why she is introducing the Family and Medical Leave Insurance Act, a bill that would create a pool of employees in Wisconsin to provide paid leave for employees.

Last October, Rep. Sondy Pope (D-Cross Plains) and Sen. Janis Ringhand (D-Evansville) introduced a state bill called the Family Medical Leave Insurance Act and Expansion of the WI Family Medical Leave Act. The Senate version, SB 596, was referred to the  Senate Committee on Insurance, Financial Services, Government Oversight, & Courts. And the Assembly version, AB 666, was sent to the Assembly Family Law committee.

Their bill would create a paid-leave system to help employees in a wider variety of situations, not just after the birth or adoption of a child. Currently the bills have 25 Assembly cosponsors and 13 Senate cosponsors, all Democrats. 

Under the insurance portion of the bill, employees across Wisconsin would contribute to a pool run by the state through their paychecks. A qualifying employee could then use it for time off to recover from an extreme illness or a difficult injury where recovery requires more than the available sick days. Further details are included in the analysis by the Legislative Reference Bureau.

The portion of the bill concerning expansion of FMLA stipulates that it apply to businesses with at least 25 permanent employees (current law specifies 50 employees). Ringhand noted that her bill adds additional circumstances that qualify people for paid family leave, including caring for a parent, a sibling, a spouse, a grandparent, grandchild or a family member serving overseas in the military.

The National Partnership, which supports paid leave, has analyzed the situation in each state and notes that in Wisconsin, caregiving needs are significant and only growing. According to its research: 

  • Unpaid leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act is inaccessible or unaffordable for 63% of working people in Wisconsin.
  • More than 64,000 children are born in Wisconsin each year, and in 77% of households with children – more than 945,000 homes – all parents work.
  • In Wisconsin, 71,144 grandparents live with grandchildren who are under 18 and 578,000 Wisconsinites serve as family caregivers.

Pope says that “this late in the session, I don’t think this will bubble up to the top of the agenda, unfortunately.” She will continue pushing the bill, however.

The women of 9 to 5 come to the Capitol to lobby for the Family and Medical Leave Insurance Act, a new bill that would create a pool of employees in Wisconsin to provide paid leave for employees.
The women of 9 to 5 come to the Capitol to lobby for the Family and Medical Leave Insurance Act, a new bill that would create a pool of employees in Wisconsin to provide paid leave for employees. (Photos by Melanie Conklin)

“I think it’s shocking that we are the only industrial nation in the world forcing people to work like this,” Pope adds. “One in four women have to return to work within two weeks of giving birth. It’s unconscionable.”

Ringhand agrees it is unlikely that Republicans will move the FMLA bills this session, but she has been watching changes at the federal level and in companies like Amazon, which announced earlier this month that it will voluntarily give employees six weeks of paid leave. (Other companies such as Zendesk, Citigroup, TD Ameritrade, Alphabet, American Express and Facebook offer 16 – 20 weeks paid leave according to Business Insider.)

Ringhand says she has experienced increased contacts from outside groups supporting this issue recently. 

“Yesterday a v from Milwaukee popped into my office who pays all his staff $7.25 an hour plus tips and has paid leave for his employees,” says Ringhand. “Getting these outside groups together helps — I hope it starts to catch. We’re going to keep pushing it.”


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Melanie Conklin
Melanie Conklin

Melanie Conklin was the Wisconsin Examiner's founding Deputy Editor, serving from its launch July 1, 2019, until Feb. 1, 2022. She is proud to be a native of the state of Wisconsin, which gave humankind the typewriter, progressivism and deep-fried cheese curds. Her several decades in journalism include political beats and columns at Isthmus newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal and other publications. When not an ink-stained wretch, she served time inside state, local and federal government in communications before returning to journalism at the Examiner. It’s what she’s loved ever since getting her master’s degree in journalism from the UW-Madison. Her family includes one husband, two kids, four dogs and five (or more) chinchillas.

Allison Stevens
Allison Stevens

Allison Stevens is a reporter for States Newsroom's Washington, D.C. bureau.