Fight over paid leave heating up in Congress
A bitter fight is looming in Congress over the push for paid family leave, despite broad backing for the idea from both parties and the White House.
Republicans and Democrats are divided over the details of a legislative proposal. Meanwhile, White House adviser Ivanka Trump is pushing an alternative plan, leaving no clear path forward.
Republican Reps. Mimi Walters (Calif.), Elise Stefanik (N.Y.) and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.) offered legislation last week to create a voluntary program for employers to offer full- and part-time employees a guaranteed minimum level of paid leave to use and at least one flexible work arrangement.
But the National Partnership for Women & Families slammed the bill for blocking local sick leave laws — now on the books in eight states and 32 localities — and for allowing employers to deny the use of the paid leave when it disrupts business operations.
Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.) praised the bill, known as the Workflex in the 21st Century Act.
“What we’re trying to do is give employers who are operating across state lines a common set of rules, because when you’re having to comply with different laws in different states, it makes it very difficult for an employer to offer anything,” he said.
“I think in order to encourage employers to do this it’s good to have a common set of laws and policies across state lines.”
Democrats were initially excited to hear of the proposal, seeing it as a potential breakthrough.
“I’m excited about this tsunami of support for women,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), who offered a bill in February to provide six weeks of guaranteed paid leave for all federal employees following the birth, adoption or fostering of a child.
“I’ve never seen it before in my life … I’m glad to hear Republicans are stepping up.”
But Maloney’s enthusiasm sank when she was told the bill would pre-empt state and local sick leave laws.
“I have questions about any legislation that puts a ceiling on the rights of women,” Maloney said. “Most Democrats don’t want to put a ceiling on what a city or state can do, or wants to do, for work-family balance.”
Democrats also object because the bill blocks state and local governments from requiring more paid leave days than the federal government.
“That’s terrible,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.).
“There are certain kinds of pre-emptions Democrats can support, but in general, when you talk about social welfare legislation or minimum wages, or anything helping working people, helping families, to pre-empt it is wrong.”
Sources familiar with the GOP bill, however, said Seattle is the only locality that now offers more sick leave than what would be offered under the bill, and only a small percentage of employees in the city now qualify for it.
Those sources noted the bill does not impact the 12 weeks of unpaid leave time employees can already take under the Family and Medical Leave Act for the birth, fostering or adoption of a child.
“It’s the not the holy grail to paid time off, but it’s a good step we think,” a source familiar with the bill said, adding that the goal was to provide some sort of paid leave without saddling businesses with new burdens.
The bill would require an employer to pay for the leave. The amount of time an employee could take would be determined by a formula that takes into account the size of the employer and the employee’s years of service.
A company with 50 to 249 employees, for example, would have to offer employees who have been with the company for five or more years 15 days, while employees who have worked five or fewer years would get 13 days.
Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) said what he likes most about the bill is that it’s voluntary for both the employer and the employee.
“It basically says, ‘we’re not worried what you use it for, you’re big people.’ If you need it to take care of your kids, take care of your elderly parents or go fly-fishing, you can use it,” he said.
But sources familiar with the bill said only the flexible working arrangement is voluntarily. All employees would get the federal amount of paid time offered under the federal legislation if an employer opted into the program.
Ivanka Trump, meanwhile, is aggressively pushing her own plan, which was included in President Trump’s 2018 budget proposal. She is calling for states to be required to provide new parents and adopted parents six weeks of paid parental leave as part of unemployment benefits.
While a federal paid leave law is something Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) says he could potentially support, he said there are “caveats” for many Republicans.
“I don’t know that I want to litigate it right now in the press, but certainly on how do we make sure it doesn’t become a burdensome event for small businesses that can’t afford it and yet a norm that we all get to practice on a regular basis,” he said when asked what the conditions are.
Meadows said he has talked with Ivanka Trump about family leave at least two or three times and that she’s pushing Congress to pass a plan next year.
“Her family leave policy really has some merit, and we’re trying to show her the conservative pushbacks, as well as some of the other factors that would come into play,” he said.
“She makes a very compelling case and certainly she has been extremely tenacious in her reaching out to members both in the House and in the Senate.”
The White House, meanwhile, has suggested it is open to negotiating.
“We wanted to take the initiative, present a strong proposal in our budget as a stake in the ground,” a White House official said. “We will continue to talk and meet with Congress and leaders from outside the government on the ultimate paid leave proposal that will work for all working families.”
Though Republicans are now focused on tax reform, Byrne said paid leave is an emerging issue.
“I know we’re real focused on tax reform right now, but I think we’re going to be real focused on that as well,” he said.
The White House official said the administration is pleased with the progress it’s made in generating conversations around the issue, but is “realistic” about the congressional calendar.
“We know how hard it is going to be and that for all the talk on the issue, nobody has been able to get it done before, but we are committed to it and the priority now is to continue to build a coalition,” the official said.
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