With several proposals on the table, Congress appears ready to address America’s caregiving crisis.
Three weeks after giving birth to her second child, Melina went back to work. On days she couldn’t secure childcare, she often brought her baby with her.
“I was paying off student loans and had to work two jobs to support myself and my two kids,” said Melina, who asked to withhold her last name. “My then-husband wasn’t able to hold a job and it fell to me to provide.”
At the time, Melina, who lives in Washington state, was working as a chronic disease social worker and taught part-time at a university.
“On days I had to be physically in the class or a client’s home, I had to scramble for childcare,” she recalled. “On days I could work from my office on campus or on site for the service agency, I would rely on understanding co-workers and managers. My manager at the agency also brought her baby, and we would lay out blankets for them to wiggle and play on and breastfeed while typing our case notes.”
When clients stopped by the office unexpectedly, she added, they would scramble to put the blankets and other baby items out of sight and “hide” their children with one another until the client left.
Many workers in the U.S. face similar obstacles when managing a new life with a baby. That’s because 89 percent of Americans do not have access to paid family leave. In fact, one in four women return to work just two weeks after giving birth.
However, Congress may finally be ready to address America’s caregiving crisis.
On Tuesday, the House Ways and Means Committee held a four-hour-long hearing to discuss three legislative proposals that address paid family and medical leave. Two separate panels of bill sponsors, advocates and witnesses—all women—offered testimony about the need for paid leave in the U.S. Afterward, the committee had the opportunity to ask questions.
“We have to all agree that this is a big problem in our nation as a whole,” said New York Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-3). The U.S. is one of only two countries in the world, along with Papua New Guinea, that do not provide paid maternity leave. Workers lose an estimated $20.6 billion in wages each year because the U.S. lacks a national guaranteed paid leave program. While nearly 60 percent of U.S. workers have access to up to 12 weeks of leave for family or medical needs through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), many families simply cannot take that much time off without pay.
Currently, eight states—California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington—and D.C. have laws that address paid family leave.
In Congress, there are three different paid leave proposals up for consideration:
Introduced by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (CT-03) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) in the Senate, the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (also known as the FAMILY Act) would create a national paid family and medical leave program that is gender-neutral. Co-sponsored by more than 200 lawmakers, the bill would make workers eligible for up to 12 weeks of partial income for the birth or adoption of a child, or the injury or illness of a family member. The program would be funded through a payroll tax of two cents per $10 in wages.
On Tuesday, DeLauro told the committee that the issue was personal for her. When she dealt with ovarian cancer and the death of her mother, she knew she didn’t have to worry that her job wouldn’t be there when she returned to work. “That was such a blessing that cannot just be for staffers or members of the Congress,” she said. “The United States needs a national paid family leave policy.”
The New Parents Act, introduced by Reps. Ann Wagner (R-MO) and Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) with a companion bill in the Senate, would allow parents to use a portion of their Social Security benefits after the birth or adoption of a child. The bill does not raise taxes to fund parental leave; rather, parents would have the option to delay or reduce their future retirement benefits in order to spend up to three months with their new child while still receiving pay.
“At a time when we need to be strengthening Social Security, this perverse tradeoff does the opposite,” Sen. Gillibrand wrote in a CNN op-ed in December.
Spearheaded by Reps. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) and Colin Allred (D-TX), the bipartisan Advancing Support for Working Families Act would give families the option to borrow up to $5,000 from their future years’ child tax credit for a year after the birth or adoption of a child. The legislation does not take away from Social Security or require an increase in taxes, though it is a loan.
House Republicans are leery of any new national program that involves raising taxes, as the Family ACT does. “There are many options beyond a one-size-fits-all entitlement program that layers over states and burdens companies that already offer paid leaves,” said Wagner, cosponsor of the New Parents Act.
The FAMILY Act, however, has garnered support from a number of paid leave advocates for being comprehensive, including the National Partnership for Women & Families, the Main Street Alliance and other groups representing the interests of small businesses, the National Employment Law Project (NELP).
“Paid family leave will actually give workers real choices rather than the illusion of choice that exists now,” Kemi Role, NELP’s director of work equity, said on Tuesday.
Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow for Paid Leave Policy and Strategy at New America, also expressed support for the FAMILY Act during the hearing. To her, creating a national plan is the best option if lawmakers hope to address the country’s gender wage gap, racial wealth gap, and employment discrimination.
The U.S. is one of only two countries in the world, along with Papua New Guinea, that do not provide paid maternity leave.
Considering how different the current proposals are, it’s unclear how lawmakers will make paid leave a reality for Americans. Several legislators, however, expressed optimism at the simple fact that they all agreed it was an issue that desperately needs to be addressed.
Melina, the Washington mom, said having access to such a benefit would have made a world of difference for her and her children: She had to work to take care of her family because she didn’t have much financial or emotional support from her partner.
“Working in an office with an infant makes you stand in two worlds, which was lovely when it worked, but made it hard to be fully present in either role,” Melina explained. “I was lucky not to have post recovery pain—but breastfeeding was interrupted and challenging with an erratic schedule, and the stress in finding childcare was unbelievable.
“Paid family leave would have let me bond with my baby, create routine for my toddler and baby, and lessened the strain of finding childcare and funding our life. I would have left an abusive relationship sooner, too—but finances meant I had to stay.”