By: Shilpa Phadke
This week marks the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which for the first time provided workers with job-protected family and medical leave. Once a fringe issue and sometimes viewed exclusively as a “women’s issue,” paid family and medical leave is now at the center of a national conversation about what millions of workers need to address the struggles of caring for their families while fulfilling responsibilities at work. Many U.S. workplaces remain behind the curve in adopting policies that address work-family conflicts. Only 15 percent of workers currently have access to paid family leave, and each year, working families lose more than $20 billion in wages due to lack of access to paid family and medical leave. Every day, families across the country are forced to make the impossible choice between keeping their jobs and providing care to a loved one—whether a new baby, a family member with a disability, or an aging parent.
The popularity of and support for paid family and medical leave is not lost on the Trump administration. In this year’s State of the Union address, President Donald Trump received applause when he said that the nation needs paid leave. But instead of pursuing a meaningful, comprehensive paid family and medical leave program, the Trump administration and Congress continue to put forth half-measures and irresponsible plans that fall short of what working families need.
Many of these so-called solutions are premised on false choices. Workers should not be forced, for example, to choose between caring for their families and jeopardizing their future economic stability by delaying retirement. Yet this is what the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF), a right-wing women’s group funded by the Koch brothers, has proposed, gaining the support of White House adviser Ivanka Trump and Sens. Joni Ernst (R-IA), Mike Lee (R-UT), and Marco Rubio (R-FL).
This proposal would allow workers who need time off for the birth or adoption of a child to dip into their Social Security funds to replace income lost during the leave period. Workers using this option subsequently would be required to delay their retirement for some period of time.
This proposal fails working families in four main ways.
1. The proposal is not comprehensive
Creating a plan that only covers parental leave does not cover the 75 percent of workerswho 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. And it does not meet the needs of those caring for spouses, aging parents, or children with a life-threatening illness. A comprehensive paid family and medical leave plan would cover the same needs established with bipartisan support in the FMLA: parental leave; family care leave; personal medical leave; and military exigency and caregiving leave.
2. The proposal is not sustainable
Forcing workers to borrow from their future Social Security benefits and delay retirement undermines the U.S. Social Security system. If anything, the system should be shored up, not repurposed or depleted. Only then can it benefit workers and their families in times of retirement, disability, or death.
Although details are scant, draining billions of dollars from Social Security would clearly harm the system. And moving the proposal forward without a clear understanding of its potential economic impact is irresponsible, risky, and far from what workers need to ensure that their families are cared for in the short and long terms. Plus, any new workload for the Social Security Administration will include costs for equipment upgrades and staffing. But the so-called budget-neutral proposal does not highlight the need for such funds. This means that the money would have to come from somewhere else—most likely the Social Security Administration’s already shoestring budget.
3. The proposal does not adequately support workers
The parental leave benefit is unlikely to be sufficient for workers who need it most. According to the IWF, the proposal would provide only about 45 percent of wages for the average worker—far below what most families need. Ample data from existing paid family leave programs at the state level make clear that workers cannot afford to take leave if wage replacement rates are too low. Research on the impact of the FMLA shows that many low- and middle-income workers are unable to make use of its up to 12 weeks of leave because that leave is unpaid.
California’s paid leave program used to provide 55 percent wage replacement, but the state found that this rate made the leave inaccessible to many low-wage workers. This is why California recently raised its wage replacement rate: It now replaces 70 percent of wages for the average lower-wage worker. It simply does not make sense to create a program with benefit levels below a rate that has already been proven to hinder access.
4. The proposal disproportionately hurts women
Women—a group that Ivanka Trump claims she wants to empower—stand to lose the most from this proposal. On average, women have lower monthly Social Security retirement benefits and lower private retirement savings than men, and they also take leave more often and for longer periods of time. They are also more likely than men to face caregiving penalties on lifetime earnings.
Further, because the proposal’s wage replacement level is so low, there is no reason to suspect that men would take leave at the same rates they do under existing state programs with higher benefits. This would only further entrench the gender gap in caregiving, while disproportionately hurting women’s future retirement security.
If policymakers really want to make a difference in the lives of millions of working families, they should stop offering half-measures that do not respond to the challenges workers face. Comp time, personal 401(k)s, employer tax credits, and plans based on unfunded mandates and inaccurate assumptions will not ensure that all workers have access to paid family and medical leave. Policymakers should look to programs working effectively at the state level—such as those in California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and New York, with more states coming on board. These programs are designed to create a stable source of funding that can stand the test of time. Pursuing an approach that would drain Social Security is even more of a slap in the face on the heels of the recently passed tax bill, which robs working families to pay for massive corporate tax cuts. The IWF’s parental leave proposal sends a clear message: Workers who need to care for their families are on their own.
The FAMILY Act would provide comprehensive paid family and medical leave
The Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (FAMILY Act), introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), would take a completely different approach by creating a comprehensive paid family and medical leave program that would provide 12 weeks of leave and 66 percent of monthly wages. The FAMILY Act would be self-sustaining and fully funded by employer and employee contributions, with an average contribution of roughly $2 per week. The funds generated would be used to provide paid leave benefits. The proposed legislation explicitly states that no funds would be drawn from Social Security benefits, nor would any Social Security funds be used to administer the program. Unlike the proposal being pushed by Ivanka Trump and Sens. Rubio, Lee, and Ernst, the FAMILY Act is based on proven evidence of what works and how best to meet modern workforce needs.
In 1993, the FMLA made history by finally acknowledging that providing workers with job-protected family and medical leave was an urgent national priority. Today, it is similarly urgent that policymakers put forth a plan for comprehensive paid family and medical leave, not plans that will not help the workers most in need. Because while the Trump administration might be able to wait another 25 years for a comprehensive plan, working families do not have that luxury.
Shilpa Phadke is the vice president of the Women’s Initiative at the Center for American Progress.