By Lydia Wheeler - 01/13/15 06:00 AM EST
Democrats are seizing on the fight for mandatory paid leave in the United States as their next big pocketbook issue.
The Obama administration has for months called upon Congress to require employers to offer paid leave, with Labor Secretary Tom Perez relentlessly pressing the case to anyone who will listen.
That will soon change, according to Democratic operatives, administration officials and others on the political left.
“It’s a big issue in our economy — and if you’re not paying attention to it now, you will be,” said Elizabeth Shuler, AFL-CIO secretary treasurer. “2016 will be the year people start making it a pillar of their economic platform.”
Out of 185 countries and territories in the world surveyed by the International Labor Organization, the United States is one of only two that does not offer paid maternity leave. Papua New Guinea is the other.
Democrats say the issue scores highly among voters across the political spectrum, making it a potential winner at the polls — especially if Republicans hold an opposing view.
“This is something that has bipartisan support,” said Margie Omero, a former pollster and current Democratic strategist with the bipartisan firm Purple Strategies. “It’s something people can feel an immediate impact from.”
Though the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows for time off from work for maternity leave or an illness, it often goes unpaid.
According to the Labor Department, only 35 percent of workers are able to take some type of paid leave for their own illness, and only 39 percent can do so for the birth of a child.
President Obama has long supported paid parental leave and more flexibility in the workplace. At a White House summit on working families in June, Obama said that while work is important, “family is also the bedrock of our lives, and we don’t want a society where folks are having to make a choice between those two things.”
But extending guaranteed paid leave to all workers would require congressional action, which would be extremely unlikely in the new Republican-controlled Congress.
Business groups object to the proposal.
“Our members are opposed to it because of real costs — and in a philosophical sense, they’re opposed to it because they don’t want the government telling them what to do,” National Federation of Independent Businesses spokesman National Federation of Independent Businesses spokesman Jack Mozloom said. said, adding that most of the group’s members are small mom and pop operations.
“They’re down 10 percent if one employee is out for a week and that costs productivity, but the work still has to get done.”
Employers then have three choices: hire a temp to fill in, pay someone overtime or leave the work unfinished, he said.
“A lot of our members say ‘If an employee is sick, I want them to come to me and I’ll work something out with them, but I don’t want the government creating a personnel policy for my employees,’ ” Mozloom said.
Still, Democrats see the issue working in their favor.
A 2013 Huffington Post/YouGov poll on paid family and sick leave found that 74 percent of Americans thought companies should be required to offer paid sick leave to their employees. The figure included 84 percent of Democrats, 60 percent of Republicans and 68 percent of independents, the Huffington Post reported.
Leading the charge for the administration has been Perez, who has called for paid leave legislation during speeches and public appearances around Washington in recent months.
Perez declared paid leave a “sleeper issue that will sleep no more” during an event at the National Press Club in October, and vowed to keep pressing the argument, regardless of the political landscape.
“We know that doing paid leave is not an impossible thing — every other industrialized country in the world has found a way to do it,” Labor Department spokeswoman Tania Mejia said.
On Monday, the left-leaning Center for American Progress proposed a national paid leave policy and other policies to help U.S. families. The proposal comes on the heels of Obama’s call last week for free community college tuition, and as Democrats in Washington unveiled a new plan Monday to lower taxes on the middle class and foot the bill with higher taxes on the wealthy.
Together, the proposals reflect Democrats’ intention to double down on their populist economic polices, even as they face a tougher road forward through the GOP-dominated Congress.
Republicans who oppose paid leave are going to be forced to come up with an alternative plan, argued Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster and president of the firm Lake Research Partners.
“They won’t be able to get away with coming out against it outright, so you’ll see them try to come up with a confusing alternative,” she said.
Lake said some Democratic candidates used the issue to drive voters to the polls in 2014, but only in a limited way.
“To be truly successful, it needs to be tied into a broader economic platform,” she said.
In speeches ahead of a presumed presidential candidacy, Clinton has added her voice to the push, lamenting that the U.S. still lags behind other countries like Japan. She has acknowledged, however, that it’s going to take time to achieve.
“I don’t think, politically, we could get it now,” she said at a CNN town hall meeting in June.
In the short term, proponents are focusing their efforts on enacting state policies.
Warren, who has thus far resisted calls for her to launch a White House bid, praised a series of federal grants to fund feasibility studies on paid leave in the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, Montana and Rhode Island.
“Having a new baby should not be a path to poverty, and working parents who stay home when they are sick should not have to worry about whether they can pay their bills,” Warren said.
In Congress, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandMoving beyond minimal: Fighting for paid family and medical leave McAuliffe: I wouldn't want a 'caretaker' in Kaine's Senate seat Tim Kaine backs call to boost funding for Israeli missile defense MORE (D-N.Y.) have introduced the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, which would establish a national paid family and medical leave insurance program.
Advocates of the law say they hope to see it pass Congress in the next five years. But they expect to see it emerge as a leading Democratic issue long before that.
“We think this issue will become a point of demarcation in the election of 2016,” said Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values at Work. “We hope it will deliver a message that the electorate cares a lot about working families and wants to see progress on these issues.”