Paid Family and Medical Leave: Congress Holds Hearing, Weighs Legislation

By Pronita Gupta

Recently, I testified at the first-ever hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Ways and Means on developing a comprehensive national paid family and medical leave (PFML) policy. 

Democrats and Republicans agreed that paid leave is important to support workers and help businesses and the economy thrive. Everyone also agreed that we shouldn’t pay for a PFML policy by cutting social security, an approach that would undermine workers’ retirement savings.

But that’s where agreement ended. As paid leave experts, CLASP has an important role separating fact from misconceptions that stall progress. We’re eager to help members understand what’s at stake, what works and what doesn’t, and how we can move forward.

There’s strong evidence that state policies are already working. California, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island have all implemented cost-effective PFML policies. Washington, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia are all in the process of implementing their new PFML policies. Each of their policies recognizes the reality that many workers work too many hours for too little pay and have no savings to fall back on.

But we can’t wait for all 50 states to pass PFML laws. We need to use what we’ve learned to create a national policy.

During the hearing, some said PFML should be left to employers, asserting that more and more businesses are offering the benefit voluntarily. Their claims are starkly contradicted by available data. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, just 16 percent of private-sector workers and 7 percent of low-wage workers have paid family leave. That’s deeply troubling, especially with low-wage work growing rapidly. Low-wage workers, who are majority women and people of color, must make impossible choices between needed income and caring for a seriously ill loved one or healing from their own serious illness.

Over the past five years, there’s been very little growth of PFML in the private sector. Additionally, many small businesses simply can’t afford the full cost of providing it. Tony Sandkamp, a small business owner who also testified at the hearing, stated that without New Jersey’s Family Leave Insurance Program and Temporary Disability Insurance program, he wouldn’t have been able to offer paid leave to his employees as well as compete for and retain talent. 

We can’t continue to leave PFML to states and the private sector. There are significant disparities in PFML access by region, industry, occupation, wage level, race, and gender. Our country needs a national, comprehensive, inclusive paid family and medical leave policy—not piecemeal approaches. This policy must allow workers to take time to address serious family and medical needs as well as care for new children. Seventy-five percent of workers who currently take leave do so to care for a seriously ill loved one, recover from their own serious illness, or address the deployment or injury of a military-serving family member.

Today, 43.5 million people (most of whom have full-time jobs) provide unpaid care to family members. This trend will only grow in the coming years. More and more people live in multi-generational households; our senior population is increasing; and the opioid epidemic is ever-expanding. As my fellow witness, Marisa Howard-Karp, explained, many workers are caught in the “sandwich generation,” caring for an elder parent and a child simultaneously. For them, taking unpaid leave can cause serious economic hardship and increase stress during an extremely vulnerable time.

Cost was another major issue discussed at the hearing. Some shared exaggerated cost estimates based on inaccurate data. This led several members to raise concerns that a paid family and medical leave program would burden workers and businesses. Fortunately, Congress has already introduced legislation that would provide paid leave without burdening anyone.

The Family and Medical Leave Insurance (FAMILY) Act would establish a federal PFML program funded by payroll contributions of less than 1 percent by employers and employees. This amounts to a cup of coffee once a week. According to national polling data, that approach is very popular. Most workers, including low-income workers, are willing to pay a small payroll tax for paid family and medical leave.

Making modest payments into a social insurance pool is far less costly than doing nothing. Every year, families lose approximately $20.6 billion in wages when they provide or receive care without getting paid leave. Low-income families may also lose their jobs and experience long-term consequences to their health and wellbeing. At the same time, employers experience high turnover costs and reduced productivity. This severely undermines the strength and growth of our economy.

We simply can’t wait to take action any longer. We need a national policy now.