American families need paid leave without sacrificing their retirement

American families need paid leave without sacrificing their retirement
© Getty Images

While many of the assaults on women’s rights from the Trump administration and its allies in Congress are overt, from nominating Supreme Court justices who may overturn Roe v. Wade to separating children from their parents and dismantling family planning grants to rolling back equal pay protections, the latest one is perhaps less obvious.

This week, the Senate Finance Committee will hold a hearing on an irresponsible paid parental leave plan crafted by the Independent Women’s Forum, a conservative group funded by the Koch brothers. This paid leave proposal is expected to be introduced as legislation by Sens. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstAs we have united when tested in the past, Americans are working together to fight coronavirus The Hill's Campaign Report: Sanders exits, clearing Biden's path to nomination Democrats target Ernst in bid to expand Senate map MORE (R-Iowa), Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeZoom, grocery delivery, self-isolation: How lawmakers are surviving coronavirus Justice IG pours fuel on looming fight over FISA court Senator Tom Coburn's government oversight legacy MORE (R-Utah) and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate blocks dueling coronavirus relief plans Five problems banks face in getting coronavirus relief out the door Mnuchin, Schumer in talks to strike short-term relief deal MORE (R-Fla), and is viewed favorably by White House senior adviser Ivanka TrumpIvana (Ivanka) Marie TrumpPrivate equity firm with ties to Kushner asks Trump administration to relax rules on loan program: report Overnight Health Care: CDC recommends face coverings in public | Resistance to social distancing sparks new worries | Controversy over change of national stockpile definition | McConnell signals fourth coronavirus bill On The Money: Economy sheds 701K jobs in March | Why unemployment checks could take weeks | Confusion surrounds 9B in small-business loans MORE.

ADVERTISEMENT
Every day, workers across the country are forced to choose between keeping their jobs and taking care of themselves or providing care to a loved one. Paid family and medical leave is central to what millions of workers need to address the struggles of caring for themselves and their families. Only 15 percent of workers have access to paid family leave, resulting in more than $20 billion in lost wages. But instead of pursuing a meaningful and comprehensive paid leave program, the Trump administration and Congress continue to put forth harmful half measures that fall short of what working families need.

First, workers should not be forced to choose between caring for their families and retirement. Under the new proposal, parents would be able to take up to 12 weeks of partially paid leave after the birth or adoption of a new child, but only by cutting into their future retirement earnings. This means that a typical mother of two children would need to delay retirement by a year, which is equivalent to a 7 percent cut in Social Security retirement benefits for life, to take paid parental leave.

Although details of this “wolf in sheep’s clothing” plan are scant, this proposed Senate Republican legislation would drain billions of dollars from Social Security would clearly harm the system. Furthermore, moving the proposal forward without a clear understanding of its potential economic impact is irresponsible and risky. If anything, the system should be shored up, not repurposed or depleted.

Second, creating a plan that only covers parental leave does not cover the 75 percent of workers who take leave for family caregiving or their own medical needs. A parental-only paid leave proposal ignores workers who are following doctor’s orders by taking time off to recover from serious illnesses, chemotherapy, or surgery. The proposal also leaves out workers who may need to take a temporary leave from work to care for a family member with a disability. It does not meet the needs of those caring for spouses, aging parents, or children with an illness.

A comprehensive paid family and medical leave plan would cover the same needs established with bipartisan support in the Family and Medical Leave Act, including parental leave, family care leave, personal medical leave, and military exigency and caregiving leave. Not to mention that the Independent Women’s Forum plan has a parental leave benefit that is unlikely to be sufficient for workers who need it most. The proposal is likely to only cover about 45 percent of wages for the average worker, which is far below what most families need to make ends meet.

Third, women stand to lose the most from this proposal. Women, and women of color in particular, on average have lower monthly Social Security retirement benefits and lower private retirement savings than men. Women also take leave more often and for longer periods of time. Limiting the proposal to only parental leave and offering a low level of wage replacement is very likely to exacerbate, rather than reduce, the gender imbalance in taking leave. This proposal will further entrench the gender gap in caregiving, while disproportionately hurting women’s future earnings potential and retirement security.

If Republican senators really want to make a difference, they should support comprehensive paid leave like the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act. This bill, introduced by Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandFormer Clinton staffers invited to celebrate Sanders dropping out: report States battle each other for equipment in supply chain crunch The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden struggles to stay in the spotlight MORE (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauroRosa Luisa DeLauroOvernight Health Care: Trump calls report on hospital shortages 'another fake dossier' | Trump weighs freezing funding to WHO | NY sees another 731 deaths | States battle for supplies | McConnell, Schumer headed for clash House Democrats urge Trump administration to reopen ObamaCare exchanges Millennials are the unseen leaders in the coronavirus crisis MORE (D-Conn.), would take a completely different approach by creating a comprehensive paid family and medical leave program which would provide up to 12 weeks of leave and two-thirds of normal wages. Similar to successful paid leave programs in a handful of states, the Family Act would be self-sustaining and fully funded by employers and employees, with an average contribution of roughly $2 per week.

Paid leave should be accessible to all families, and it should not come at the expense of workers and their economic stability over the long term. Senators should reject the false choice that pits paid leave and Social Security against each other, as both are critically important policies that American families need and should be invested in accordingly. The support of the Republican paid leave proposal sends a clear message: Workers who need to care for their families are on their own.

Shilpa Phadke is the vice president of the women’s initiative at the Center for American Progress. She served in the White House as special assistant to the president for Cabinet affairs during the Obama administration.