Paid leave advocates ramping up the pressure on Manchin and Schumer

Advocates are mounting a final push to ensure that Senate Democrats don’t strip the national paid leave program out of the party’s $2 trillion climate and social spending bill.

Their efforts are aimed squarely at Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinSunday shows preview: Democrats' struggle for voting rights bill comes to a head Biden's voting rights gamble prompts second-guessing King family to march for voting rights in Arizona before MLK Day MORE (W.Va.), the lone Democratic holdout who has insisted that paid leave should be passed in a bipartisan way, and Senate Majority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerKyrsten Sinema's courage, Washington hypocrisy, and the politics of rage Joe Biden's disastrous 48 hours Biden's desperate pitch to keep minority voters MORE (D-N.Y.), who controls whether paid leave will be included in the Senate bill that will go to the floor this month.

Supporters of the paid medical and family leave program say it’s a hugely popular, slam-dunk policy that would boost both the pandemic-battered economy and Democrats’ election prospects. But they’re aware of the current political reality that its prospects are uncertain.

ADVERTISEMENT

“It would be a mistake, of both politics and policy, to leave behind the families most impacted in this crisis, and particularly the women voters who should be seen and heard and fought for,” Dawn Huckelbridge, director of Paid Leave for All, told reporters Tuesday. 

Paid leave’s popularity is central to advocates’ lobbying push. Eighty percent of voters in Manchin’s home state support ensuring paid leave for workers suffering from a serious illness, and 72 percent support universal paid leave for workers caring for a new child, according to a new poll from Democratic firm Global Strategy Group, commissioned by Paid Leave for All.

That makes paid leave one of the most popular measures in Democrats’ reconciliation bill, and far more popular among West Virginia voters than other proposals such as universal pre-K and the enhanced child tax credit, which were backed by 58 percent and 54 percent of those surveyed, respectively.

Those same trends extend to battleground state polling, where paid leave is even more popular. Advocates say the measure would help Democrats reverse GOP gains among parents and suburban women that powered Republicans’ huge election night in Virginia last month and increase turnout among likely Democratic voters such as young women and women of color.

“Whether you’re talking about the strategy of persuasion or you’re talking about the strategy of turnout, this is one of the few issues that is at the top of both of those agendas,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who is urging the party to prioritize passing the paid leave program. 

ADVERTISEMENT

The U.S. is the only developed nation that does not guarantee paid family leave to its workers, and only nine states have passed laws to provide family and medical leave. 

Last month, the House passed Democrats’ multitrillion-dollar reconciliation package, which would guarantee U.S. workers four weeks of paid leave to raise a new child, recover from a serious illness or care for a sick family member. But Manchin, who alone could sink the bill in the 50-50 Senate, has said he doesn’t want to pass paid leave through the partisan budget reconciliation process. 

“I don’t think it belongs in the bill,” Manchin told CNN in a November interview. “We can do that in a bipartisan way. We can make sure it’s lasting.”

Advocates say that Manchin’s ideal pathway isn’t realistic, pointing to several occasions in recent years, even during the pandemic, when Republicans repeatedly voted down government-run paid leave proposals.  

“We welcome the fact that he has said paid family and medical leave is an important issue and he wants to address it, but saying he wants a bipartisan pathway is as good as saying paid leave won’t happen anytime soon and that it’s not important,” said Vicki Shabo, senior fellow for paid leave policy and strategy at the think tank New America.

ADVERTISEMENT

Paid leave advocates are pushing Schumer, a strong supporter of the policy, to keep the paid leave proposal in Senate Democrats’ reconciliation package even if Manchin refuses to support it, noting that unlike with other topics, Manchin has not drawn a “red line” over the issue.

“[Manchin] is not opposed to paid leave,” Huckelbridge said. “He’s said on record that everyone should have access to it when they need it. He said he supports it. So our job is to say: Great, we have to do this now if that’s the case. There is no bipartisan path anytime soon that will deliver real results for families.”

Democratic lawmakers are also hoping for a reversal. In an interview with “Face the Nation” on CBS last month, Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandDefense bill sets up next fight over military justice  Harry, Meghan push family leave with annual holiday card Overnight Energy & Environment — New York Democrats go after 'peaker' plants MORE (D-N.Y.) said that Manchin “has come a long way on paid leave” after she and other advocates discussed the plan with him.

The proposal could also be threatened or modified by lobbying from insurers and benefits providers that run their own private paid leave programs.

The American Benefits Council, which advocates for employer-sponsored benefit plans on behalf of large U.S. corporations such as AT&T, United Airlines, Pfizer and General Motors, has warned lawmakers that the proposal causes operational challenges for companies with employees in several different states. 

Still, more than 1,000 businesses, including Pinterest, Salesforce, Spotify and Levi Strauss and Co., signed on to an October letter backing Democrats’ paid leave proposal. They argued that the measure would help power the nation’s economic recovery by boosting small businesses and allowing workers, particularly women, to temporarily take time off from their jobs rather than leave the workforce entirely.

“Small business owners understand the importance of supporting and retaining their employees; however, lack of access to important benefits like paid family leave makes that challenging,” said John Arensmeyer, founder and CEO of Small Business Majority, which represents roughly 85,000 small business owners.

“To support small businesses and entrepreneurs for long-term success, we must modernize our benefits system by investing in a national paid family leave program,” he added. “This is a necessary step in being responsive to 21st-century realities.”