Congress Is Making Parents Choose Between Time with Kids and Retirement

It’s great that Congress is once again paying attention to the need for time off work to care for family or their own health, but most of us who have fought for paid sick days and paid family leave are groaning rather than cheering.

With much fanfare, Senator Marco Rubio this week introduced the “Economic Security for New Parents Act,” which forces parents to sacrifice Social Security benefits in exchange for a few weeks of paid leave with a new baby.

A House subcommittee also held a hearing on a “Workflex” bill sponsored by Representative Mimi Walters and Washington State’s Cathy McMorris Rodgers, which would allow multistate corporations that offer an ill-defined minimum set of benefits to flout more protective local and state paid sick leave laws.

Members of Congress should reject the bills from Rubio, Walters and McMorris Rodgers, and should instead follow the lead of the states in passing strong guarantees of comprehensive paid leave for all workers.

This week also marks the 25th anniversary of the landmark Family and Medical Leave Act. Passed by Congress in 1993, the FMLA allows many workers across the U.S. to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a new child or seriously ill family member, or to recover from their own health condition. The only major update has been to add leave for issues arising from a family member’s military deployment.

The basic protections of FMLA have been critically important for millions of working people and their families, but the law has major gaps. FMLA doesn’t cover more than 40 percent of workers, because it only applies to companies with 50 or more employees and workers who have been with their employer at least a year and worked at least 1,250 hours the previous year. It does not cover less serious illnesses, such as the flu, or routine health needs, such as staying home with a sick child or going in for a cancer screening. And it doesn’t guarantee that workers will receive pay while out on leave.

In an economy where most kids have all parents in the workforce, growing numbers of workers have elder care responsibilities, and few families can afford to miss a paycheck, guaranteed standards of paid leave are critical to the health and well-being of individuals, families, and communities.

The United States is an international outlier in not establishing general standards for paid sick days or paid parental leave. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 32 percent of all private sector workers and 70 percent of low-wage workers do not get a single day of paid sick leave. Only 13 percent of private sector workers and 4 percent of low-wage workers get paid family leave. Sick days statistics have improved over the past several years as ten states (including Washington), and over 30 cities (including Seattle and Tacoma) have stepped into the void and enacted laws requiring employers to provide a minimum amount of sick leave.

In 2017 after a lengthy advocacy effort, Washington became the fifth state to adopt a comprehensive paid family and medical leave program. Washington was able to build on the progress and learnings of other states and pass what is in many ways the most generous program, providing progressive benefits that start at 90 percent for low wage workers and top off at $1,000 per week for higher earning workers, covering all workers with full portability between jobs, allowing self-employed and contract workers to opt in, and providing up to 18 weeks of leave in certain cases.

Significantly, business leaders, working family advocates, and members of both parties joined together to craft and pass Washington’s policy.

Earlier this year, Massachusetts adopted a paid family and medical leave program that in some ways tops Washington’s, with job protection (which New York and Rhode Island also have) and up to 26 weeks of leave. Washington, D.C. is also implementing a program.

Working families across the U.S. need Congress to act – but not by reducing Social Security benefits or taking away protections workers have won. The Healthy Families Act and Family Act are far better alternatives. Even better would be following the lead of Washington and other states which are adopting standards and programs that help all workers, families, and businesses thrive.

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