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Paid Family Leave Has Stalled in Congress for Years. Here’s Why That’s Changing

15 minute read

Carrie Carpenter started as a full-time waitress at a South Dakota Cracker Barrel in 2016. Seven months later, she had her fourth child.

Before her daughter Celena was born that August, Carpenter was diagnosed with gestational diabetes. The temporary insulin deficiency resulted in additional doctor’s appointments and even higher medical bills, but it also meant that Carpenter had to deliver her baby as soon as she reached full-term.

During an emergency caesarean-section delivery, doctors realized Celena had her first bowel movement while still in the womb. The six-pound 14-ounce baby had sucked fecal matter into her tiny lungs and developed a serious bacterial infection. She would remain in a neonatal intensive-care unit for one month and home with an oxygen tank for another.

But after three weeks, Carpenter had to go back to work. Cracker Barrel didn’t offer her paid parental leave, and she couldn’t afford to take the 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave they provide to waitresses.

“I didn’t have enough gas money to go back and forth to the hospital,” Carpenter said.

If Carpenter lived in Bulgaria, which has one of the most generous paid maternity-leave laws in the world, she’d be entitled to 59 weeks at up to 90% of her salary. If she lived in Chile, which falls in the middle of the pack internationally, she’d be entitled to 18 weeks at up to 100% of her salary. Even if she lived in Switzerland, which nears the bottom of the range, she’d have gotten 14 weeks at up to 80% of her salary. In the United States, she’s not entitled to any under federal law.

Advocates have long backed a national mandate for paid parental leave in the U.S., but it looks increasingly like it may pass in the near future, in part due to support from Republicans and the business lobby.

Americans widely support the idea: 82% say mothers should receive paid parental leave and 69% say fathers should, according to 2016 figures from Pew Research Center. In response, a growing number of lawmakers and political candidates from both sides of the aisle are willing to discuss serious policy solutions.

Democrats have been working on legislation for a while. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who is currently seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, first introduced a paid parental-leave bill in December 2013.

“Nearly two-thirds of mothers in the United States are the primary, sole or co-breadwinners of their family. But the truth is, the lack of national paid leave leaves a lot of families without the ability to care for their loved ones when they need it,” Gillibrand told TIME in a recent interview. “They have to make the very tough choice between earning a paycheck and providing for their loved ones.”

Read More: A Quick Guide to the Big Ideas in the Democratic Primary

Republican Sens. Marco Rubio, Joni Ernst, Mike Lee and Bill Cassidy have all announced paid parental-leave proposals in the last two years. Ivanka Trump, the President’s daughter and senior adviser, has also made it one of her chief priorities while serving in the White House.

“It’s exciting to see momentum on paid family leave as bipartisan proposals are taking shape to support America’s working families,” Trump told TIME. “Much progress has been made to advance this important policy over the past two years, and I believe that paid family leave can finally be passed into law if we work across the aisle and encourage honest debate in pursuit of a bipartisan path forward.”

Congress considers paid-leave bills

Arguments against providing paid leave in the U.S. have historically focused on how much it could cost taxpayers and businesses.

But as Republicans fight Democratic plans to expand government-subsidized health insurance, subsidized child care and free college in favor of fiscal responsibility, paid parental leave is beginning to look like an area where they can find compromise.

“I think parental leave is the only one that doesn’t come out of the government coffers,” says Rich Galen, a Republican strategist and former spokesperson for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. “It’s not a budget item for the House and the Senate.”

The New Parents Act Rubio introduced in March, for example, would let new parents take one to three months off by essentially borrowing from their future Social Security benefits when their children are born in exchange for a three- to six-month delay in retirement, or a reduction in their first several years of Social Security payments. “This is an approach that provides people an option to utilize their own benefits by pulling them forward and to do so without growing government,” Rubio told TIME in a recent interview.

Ernst and Lee’s CRADLE Act, also announced in March, is similar. It would give new parents the option of taking one, two or three months of paid leave in exchange for delaying retirement benefits by two, four or six months, respectively. Ernst tells TIME it’s a smart solution because it’s “very budget neutral” and uses an infrastructure that’s already in place.

Gillibrand’s FAMILY Act differs in that she suggests funding leave through a payroll tax instead of workers’ pulling from their future Social Security benefits. It would offer new parents up to 12 weeks off at 66% of their monthly wages, paid for by a 0.2% payroll tax paid by both employees and employers. For an average worker, the benefit would come with a price tag of less than $2 per week in added taxes.

She’s not crazy about her Republican colleagues’ suggestions, but she’s glad they all agree on the problem. “I don’t think it’s fair that you have to choose between your retirement and paid leave. But I like the fact that they agree that an earned benefit is the appropriate place to create a paid-leave program,” she said.

Further evidence that lawmakers are willing to work together on that problem was a May 1 announcement that the House Ways and Means Committee will hold a hearing on May 8 to discuss the issue and hear testimony from affected witnesses.

Business lobby now supports paid leave

Online Marketplace Etsy, Inc. Debuts On Nasdaq Stock Exchange
The CEO of the online marketplace Etsy, Chad Dickerson, stands with the CFO Kristina Salen on the floor of the Nasdaq as the company becomes a public company began under the ticker symbol "ETSY" on April 16, 2015, in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)Spencer Platt—Getty Images

Big businesses, which have generally lined up with conservatives on fiscal matters, are increasingly getting behind paid leave too.

Rich Fuerstenberg, a senior partner and senior consultant at Mercer, a human-resources consulting firm, says companies that provide paid parental leave help themselves retain strong employees and recruit new ones.

“Employers can use paid parental leave as a tool to encourage employees — in most cases mothers — who would normally leave the workplace at the end of their leave to return to work instead. The additional paid time off can help mitigate unwanted turnover,” Fuerstenberg says. “It’s not just about retaining people,” either, he says. “When you’re recruiting new hires, you have to be able to talk about programs that you have to become a magnet for where people want to go and work.”

Etsy, an online marketplace where vendors sell handcrafted and vintage goods, follows Fuerstenberg’s logic. The company currently provides 26 weeks of fully paid parental leave to any of its 800-plus employees who have a child.

“At the end of the day, we think happy, healthy and well-rounded employees lead to productive and fulfilled lives and work,” says the company’s senior vice president of people, strategy and services, Raina Moskowitz. “From a recruiting and retention lens, what’s good for families is really good for business.”

Though it does cost money for businesses to voluntarily provide paid parental leave, it’s now becoming clear that it also costs money not to provide it.

When workers have to leave jobs to care for newborns, companies have to spend time and money to replace them. Using data from nearly all employers that existed in California between 2000 and 2014, researchers for the California Employment Development Department found that the average firm had lower per-worker wage costs and lower turnover rates than it did before a paid parental-leave law took effect.

Meanwhile, in 2010, researchers at University of California Berkeley found that, across industries, the average cost of replacing an employee was $4,000. The average cost of replacing a white-collar professional exceeded $7,000. Full-time female employees earned a median salary of $788 per week, in 2018. Not accounting for the overtime or temp-worker costs a business might incur in a new mom’s absence, providing her five weeks of 100% paid maternity leave or eight weeks of 60% paid maternity leave could end up being cheaper than losing her altogether.

Additionally, paid parental leave could help improve the health of new mothers and their children, reducing costs for businesses that provide health insurance to their workers.

As many as one in seven women experience postpartum depression throughout the first year of their baby’s life, but longer maternity leaves can significantly reduce the number of new moms who suffer symptoms of it, according to a 2013 survey conducted by a University of Maryland public-health professor.

Further, breastfeeding is significantly easier for moms who are able to spend the first weeks and months of their children’s lives at home with them, and while not all moms are able to do it, the World Health Organization recommends it for decreased risk of ear infections (50%), lower respiratory infections (77%), obesity (24%), Type 1 diabetes (30%) and sudden infant death syndrome (36%).

Democrats disagree on details of paid leave

Parenting is becoming increasingly expensive. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates the average cost of raising one child from birth to 18 exceeds $230,000. Back in 2000, it was closer to $165,000, according to CNN Money. The early years are especially expensive: in 33 states, child care for young kids costs more than college tuition, according to nonpartisan think tank New America.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is also vying for the Democratic nomination, hopes to alleviate part of that financial burden with a universal child-care proposal. Her plan would create a network of government-funded care centers, and families earning less than 200% of the federal poverty level would be eligible to send their children to these facilities for free. Families with incomes above that would pay based on a sliding scale, up to a maximum of 7% of their income.

While many parents would welcome help with child-care costs, Warren’s plan doesn’t address the desire — and often, need — of new parents to spend a significant chunk of time with their newborns.

One reason Gillibrand has introduced her FAMILY Act in every new Congress since 2013 is because she knows what it’s like to work somewhere without a defined paid parental-leave protocol. “My law firm did not have a policy when I joined it. So I had to write it,” Gillibrand said of the three-month plan she designed for new moms when she had her first son Theodore about 15 years ago.

And her FAMILY Act goes further than that. It would also allow caretakers the ability to take paid time off to assist seriously ill children or close relatives, which is why she calls it paid family leave instead of paid parental leave. For parents like Staci Lowry, whose 8-year-old daughter suffered a serious stroke four years ago, that aspect would be life-changing. Instead, when Lowry exhausted all her annual leave and 12 weeks of unpaid leave guaranteed by the Family Medical Leave Act, she was out of options and — as it turned out — out of her customer-service job too.

“They fired me while I was still in the hospital with her,” Lowry said.

Now an activist at a paid-leave advocacy group, Lowry agrees with Gillibrand that paid parental leave should extend beyond parents of newborns. “You don’t stop being a parent just when the baby is born. You are a parent until your child puts you in grave, or unfortunately, in some circumstances, you put your child in the grave,” she said.

Gillibrand’s bill has 34 co-sponsors, including fellow 2020 candidates Warren, Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar and Kamala Harris. Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut has introduced a twin bill in the House, where it has 184 co-sponsors.

Though it was often overlooked during the 2016 election, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton also proposed a paid parental-leave policy during her campaign. Like Warren’s child-care plan, it would have been funded by a tax on the wealthy, and like Gillibrand’s paid-leave plan, it would have covered both new parents and caretakers.

Republicans debate how to pay for paid-leave policies

Some of the Republican legislators TIME talked to said that, in an ideal world, paid leave policies would include caretakers like Lowry. But they have to factor in that it would cost money to do so, and that any bill in the works now would have to get through a Republican Senate and White House and a Democratic House.

Asked why his proposal is the most sound of all the options, Rubio said “it’s the one that has the best chance of passing.”

“In order to change policy, obviously it goes without saying, it has to be turned into a law. I don’t believe we’re going to ever be able to pass a bill anytime soon that will pass the House and Senate, be signed by the President, that creates a new government program, a new mandate on business, or raises taxes,” Rubio said. The priority was drafting “something that we think can pass and [then] build upon its future,” he continued.

Ernst said small-business owners in her hometown of Iowa had asked her to formulate a paid parental-leave policy that was good for both their bottom lines and those of their employees.

“They can’t afford the additional taxes,” Ernst said. “So what I’m hearing from my small businesses is ‘I really love the way this is structured.'”

Still, there are signs compromise is possible. In April, Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy, announced that he was teaming up with Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema to draft what they call the first bipartisan approach to a paid parental-leave law.

Though Cassidy offered few specifics on what that bipartisan bill would look like, arguing that he wanted to give Sinema, who just signed on, some time before getting into the weeds, he said they were committed to drafting something congressional colleagues from both of their parties could get behind. “You can either have a messaging bill, or you can have a bill which passes. I think the issue is too important to really settle for that which messages, I think we must get that which passes,” he told TIME in early April.

Coming up with the winning solution now is smart politics. With the vast majority of Americans showing support for a legislative fix, Democrats and Republicans are looking to get ahead of the issue before the 2020 elections.

And the reason it’s so popular makes sense, says Leonard Lopoo, a professor of public administration and expert in social welfare policies at Syracuse University.

“A program that is considered universal is typically more readily accepted by the public than one that is targeted. That’s certainly true politically, but there are also other values to bringing a universal policy,” Lopoo argues, adding that universal benefits are generally easier to understand among beneficiaries than non-universal ones.

Paid leave will be an issue in 2020 election

President Trump Visits Equipment Manufacturing Plant In Pennsylvania
President Donald Trump listens to his daughter Ivanka Trump speak to supporters at a rally on January 18, 2018, in Coraopolis, Pa. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)Jeff Swensen—Getty Images

Though the push for paid parental leave seems to be brewing in Congress and boardrooms, the White House is also playing a significant role.

Sources close to the White House tell TIME that Ivanka has held dozens of meetings on paid parental leave, and has met with more than 60 members of Congress on the issue.

And while Ivanka is meeting with lawmakers, Trump is referencing his desire to spur policy by bringing it up in public spaces.

“Let us support working families by supporting paid family leave,” Trump said during his 2018 State of the Union address. Likewise, Trump’s 2018 budget sought to provide “six weeks of paid family leave to new mothers and fathers, including adoptive parents, so all families can afford to take time to recover from childbirth and bond with a new child without worrying about paying their bills.”

While that plan didn’t quite come to fruition, the Administration does believes it has piqued interest among conservatives.

“We’ve made a lot of headway in the last two years. It used to not be even a subject of debate for Republicans or a legislative consideration,” one of the sources said. Rather than coming out in defense of one particular bill, the White House is trying to “make sure that there’s enough room for that debate and the hashing out of the policy” by legislators, the source added.

For Cat Swanson, a 30-year-old Washington resident, that two years of headway isn’t enough. At four months pregnant, she and her husband are trying to figure out how they’ll be able to afford expensive daycare and rent in one of the most expensive cities in the United States once their baby comes in October.

As a federal employee at the State Department, she receives no paid maternity leave and is expected to cobble together sick leave, annual leave and unpaid family medical leave to spend time with her newborn child. Like a lot of families in the D.C. area, she can’t afford to take the 12 weeks of unpaid leave provided through the Family Medical Leave Act, and because of a recent cancer diagnosis in their family, only has about six weeks of combined paid leave left for the baby.

She is, however, able to ask her coworkers to donate their leave by placing her name on an ever-evolving list of needy colleagues updated once a week. Coworkers give, Swanson says, but they shouldn’t have to.

Though she only speaks for herself, and not the whole State Department, she’s flustered. “The idea that our government’s official policy on caring for an infant, which is a normal part of life, is to beg your colleagues for leave, I find to be reprehensible,” she said.

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Write to Abby Vesoulis at abby.vesoulis@time.com