Joe Manchin should embrace paid leave — now

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) chairs a committee hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Nov. 16, 2021.
Julia Nikhinson

One senator, Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), stands in the way of working Americans getting a new and widely desired benefit: four weeks of paid leave to bond with a new child, recover from a serious health problem or attend to a family member who needs care.    

A national paid leave program, which would pay a portion of workers’ wages during their time off, is part of the $2 trillion Build Back Better (BBB) bill passed by the House on Nov. 19 and now up for consideration in the Senate. 

Manchin has so far opposed the inclusion of paid leave in this landmark legislation, while 49 other Democratic senators are believed to favor it. Every Republican Senator is expected to vote against the entire bill. The bill requires a simple majority to pass, and without Manchin’s support, Vice President Kamala Harris cannot cast the tie-breaking vote.

The conventional wisdom is that paid leave will be jettisoned in the Senate to appease Manchin.  

That should not happen. What’s infuriating to paid leave proponents is that Manchin does not oppose the concept of paid leave. He apparently just doesn’t want to do it now. He has suggested instead that paid leave be considered separately, on its own, next year or beyond. His argument seems to be that paid leave is too big a deal and too expensive this year. Further, he has said he would prefer a bipartisan paid leave program. 

Manchin is correct that a new paid leave benefit is a big deal. He’s also correct that bipartisan support would be preferable. But he’s wrong that it’s too expensive. And he’s very wrong to think that Congress would take up paid leave in 2022 if BBB passes without it. Republicans wouldn’t risk giving the Biden administration another big win in an election year in which control of the House and Senate is up for grabs.   

The political calculus is quite clear. Now could be the last chance for years to enact paid leave as well as the other components of the BBB bill: universal, subsidized child-care and pre-school, a robust child tax credit, as well as enhanced access to health insurance and elder care.     

Taken together, these programs would propel the U.S. into a game-changing new era of support for low- and middle-income families.  They also address gaps in the safety net made glaring during the pandemic, and leading millions of low-wage workers to quit their jobs and even leave the workforce.

Paid leave has broad and bipartisan public support, including in West Virginia.  It’s also unassailable social policy. Every other developed nation has a national paid leave program and the benefits — to parent-infant bonding; child development; family stability; worker loyalty, retention and happiness; and economic vitality — are not in dispute.

Paid leave has also been tested and proved in those “laboratories of democracy” — the states. Nine states have enacted universal paid leave programs. In six (California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New York, Washington and Massachusetts), plus Washington, D.C., the programs are up and running smoothly, popular with employers and workers, and yielding well-documented positive outcomes. Paid leave programs recently enacted in Colorado, Connecticut and Oregon begin over the next few years.    

An existing federal law lays the foundation for paid leave. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), enacted in 1993, mandates that employers provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for qualifying events. But FMLA applies only to companies with 50 or more workers and requires workers to be employed for a year and have worked 1,250 hours to qualify. The paid leave measure in the BBB bill would eliminate those limits for the specified four weeks. Instead, workers (including the self-employed) must have earned at least $2,000 over the previous two years.

Cost should not be an obstacle. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) on Nov. 18 estimated the paid leave program would cost the federal government $205 billion between 2024 and 2034. But this “score” doesn’t compute benefits to families, employers, communities and the nation. Those benefits — tangible and intangible — would very likely exceed costs. For example, families lose an estimated $22.5 billion a year in wages due to lack of paid leave, and two-thirds of workers who received partial or no pay while on leave report financial problems.

Paid leave opponents say a national paid leave program isn’t needed because employers are fast stepping up to the plate.  Untrue. After decades of slow adoption, only 20 percent of private- sector workers have access to paid leave. And while more and more large companies offer parental and some family or medical leave, only 13 percent of firms with fewer than 50 workers do. Inequality by income is startling: only 8 percent of low-wage workers have access to paid family and medical leave compared to 38 percent of the highest-paid workers.

A national paid leave program would level the playing field among businesses, help reduce labor market churn, give small business entrepreneurs a boost, as well as help millions of families every year deal with life events.  It should remain in the Build Back Better bill.  

Steven Findlay, MPH, is an independent health policy analyst and journalist. He previously worked as a senior health policy analyst at Consumers Union, as well as director of research and policy at the National Institute for Health Care Management.

Tags Build Back Better Democrats family leave Joe Manchin paid leave Steven Findlay

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