Thursday, July 6, 2017

Can't we get along and pass paid family leave? -- July 6, 2017 column


President Donald Trump, the father of five who boasts he has never changed a diaper, wants to give new moms and dads paid parental leave.

His 2018 budget proposes six months’ paid leave for parents after the birth or adoption of a child “so all families can afford to take time to recover from childbirth and bond with a new child without worrying about paying their bills.”

During last year’s campaign, though, Trump proposed paid maternity leave for biological mothers only. 

“Maternity leave has a 1990s feel to it,” Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, then the Democratic vice presidential nominee, said last September. “It’s not 2016. Because in 2016 not only do women take off to take care of kids when they’re born, but men do too.”

Those who take time off mostly do so without pay.

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, workers in companies with 50 or more employees are eligible for 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a baby, sick family member or themselves. Many parents can’t afford to take leave.  

Only 13 percent of private-industry employees had access to paid family leave through their employers in March 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Most likely to benefit: highly paid, full-time, managerial employees who work for large companies.  

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton promised 12 weeks of paid leave for new parents and those taking care of seriously ill family members.

At a time when politicians of all stripes talk about how family friendly they are, first daughter Ivanka Trump has made paid family leave her issue.

Here’s the problem: Almost everybody favors helping moms and dads spend more time with their children in the abstract -- and if someone else is footing the bill.  

Trump wants to run paid family leave through state Unemployment Insurance programs, which means payments are unlikely to cover anything close to full salary. His budget asks for about $25 billion for 10 years and says states will have flexibility on how to provide and finance payments.

The plan has drawn deafening silence on Capitol Hill, where it is competing with Democratic and Republican paid family leave plans.

The leading Democratic plan calls for a nationwide insurance program funded by employers and employees through the Social Security Administration.  Republicans favor tax credits, which could be part of tax reform.

After meeting with congressional Republicans last month, Ivanka Trump seemed to acknowledge a bumpy road ahead.

“Just left a productive meeting on the Hill to discuss issues affecting American working families, including childcare & paid family leave!” she tweeted.

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said: “And we’ll see what the next step is, but it’s certainly something we’re going to continue to work on.”

Critics on the left say Trump’s plan is stingy and should cover those caring for sick family members. The business community says requiring employers to pay for paid leave will cost jobs and hurt the economy.

Critics on the right, wary of Ivanka Trump’s bona fides as a Republican, worry about another big government program. A Wall Street Journal editorial May 26 knocked her plan as “The Ivanka Entitlement.”

“As usual the policy sounds unobjectionable but the details are messy. If the benefit is available regardless of income, the government will subsidize affluent families who don’t need assistance. But inevitably the benefit will phase out as income rises like dozens of other federal subsidies. That could create another disincentive for work and advancement that traps families in poverty,” the Journal’s editors wrote.

She responded Wednesday in a letter to the editor: “Providing a national guaranteed paid-leave program – with a reasonable time limit and a benefit cap – isn’t an entitlement. It’s an investment in America’s working families.”

In a sign of our toxic political discourse, that last, innocuous sentence rankled some Republicans because Democrats often cast their spending priorities as investments.

But spending to give workers a helping hand as they start and care for their families is a worthy investment. Democrats and Republicans should put aside their bickering and work together to make paid family leave a reality.

©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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