With Rep. Neal’s Proposal, Paid Leave More Urgent Than Ever

By Nat Baldino 

After decades of support by grassroots coalitions and forward-thinking legislators, the sense of urgency for a federal paid leave program is stronger than ever. In April, the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-MA) unveiled a discussion draft, Building an Economy for Families Act, which proposes paid family and medical leave for all workers. Days later, the Biden-Harris Administration included a comprehensive, national paid leave program in the American Families Plan. In May, House Ways and Means Republicans countered with their own proposal. With multiple plans on the table, advocates must push for a policy solution that helps the workers who need it most. 

No doubt, the pandemic has shined a light on how desperately needed paid leave is. Women lost 5.1 million jobs during the pandemic and 2.3 million women have left the labor force entirely. These numbers disproportionately include women and women of color, who are more likely to be primary or sole breadwinners for their family. Women of color are also most likely to be pushed into industries that pay low wages and lack benefits. Paid leave would have allowed more women, like the 154,000 Black women who left the workforce during the pandemic, to keep their jobs, rather than choose between tending to their health and earning a paycheck. 

Luckily, proposals like Neal’s build on the knowledge that long-time paid leave proponents have gathered over many decades. Neal’s proposal builds on Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)’s Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (FAMILY Act). Until these new measures, it was the only comprehensive paid leave proposal on the federal level. Champions for paid leave have long advocated for a federal program like the FAMILY Act that is universal, comprehensive, and progressive. As paid leave finally gets due attention, it is critical to remember the lessons we have learned from the FAMILY Act and from the nine states and Washington, D.C. that have passed their own paid leave programs. Policymakers today must make sure that paid leave is inclusive of all workers and families, has sufficient wage replacement, and is job-protected to ensure the health and safety of all working families.

Neal’s proposal takes the lead from the FAMILY Act. It proposes 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave with comprehensive coverage that allows workers to take leave to care for a spouse, child, parent, or oneself when facing serious illness, as well as to welcome a new child. These allowed uses for leave were made standard under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA).  Neal’s plan is universal: while many state paid leave plans carve out gig workers or public sector workers, Neal’s plan includes all workers—no matter employer size, tenure, or self-employment. It is also universal in its definition of family, allowing for non-blood and non-marital relationships to count as family. 

Additionally, Neal’s proposal builds on lessons learned about wage replacement since the FAMILY Act was introduced. His plan creates a tiered system, whereby lower-paid workers receive more of their wages (85 percent), while scaling the rate down to the highest-paid workers, who will receive between 5 and 75 percent of their wages. Without full wage replacement, workers take an untenable pay cut if they use the benefit. So, especially for low-paid workers, a plan that replaces as much of their wages as possible is essential. 

The components of the Neal and Biden-Harris plans are the scaffolding that an equitable paid leave program must contain. Republicans have proposed alternatives that use tax credits and savings accounts—options that keep paid leave inaccessible to workers earning low wages.

For example, Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-IN) and Ways and Means Committee Republican Leader Kevin Brady (R-TX) proposed the Protecting Worker Paychecks and Family Choice Act, which allows workers to contribute to a savings account that can be used to pay for medical and child care expenses. The plan also allows private sector workers to choose to accrue time off in lieu of overtime wages. Both of these proposals are woefully inadequate, especially for workers earning low wages.

It is for this very reason that policymakers must create a universal, standardized paid leave program. The Republican proposal consists of measures that many high-earning workers already have. Workers earning low wages are carved out of the Republican plan because they either are paid too little to save up money or have employers that do not contribute benefits. A paid leave program that leaves out the workers who need it most is not true paid leave.  

Working families need a paid leave program that’s accessible, comprehensive, progressive, and job protected. When nearly 40 percent of Americans report they don’t have enough money to cover an emergency expense of $400, the Biden-Harris plan and the Neal proposal are welcome steps toward a future that prioritizes them. By creating a paid family and medical leave program that is affordable and accessible to all workers, Congress has the opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to working families.