Trump Paid Family Leave Proposal is Part of Assault on Working Families

By Liz Ben-Ishai

In yesterday’s budget proposal, President Trump proposed a paid family leave program that leaves out millions of workers, fails to adequately support low-income working families, and undermines the country’s already imperiled unemployment insurance (UI) system. The proposal comes in the same budget that slashes our country’s critical safety net programs, which help low-income families raise children, stay employed, and meet basic needs.  With these proposals, the Trump administration demonstrates its profound misunderstanding of, or antipathy to addressing, millions of families’ needs.

Earlier this year, in a speech to Congress, President Trump pledged to work with legislators to create a paid family leave (PFL) program. The proposal released yesterday does include six weeks of paid leave to new parents, financed through states’ UI programs. However, the proposal excludes many workers and is financially unworkable for families and states.

Among the lowest 25 percent of wage earners, 94 percent of U.S. workers have no paid family leave. Forty percent have no paid leave of any kind (no paid sick time, paid family leave, paid vacation, or personal leave). It’s not surprising, then, that nearly a quarter of mothers return to work within two weeks of giving birth. Paid parental leave for these moms (and their partners) is critically important.   However, that’s not where the problem ends.  Millions of other workers care for sick family members and many may struggle with their own serious illnesses. Indeed, more than three-quarters of people who take family or medical leave use it to care for family members or themselves 

More than 60 percent of workers who care for another adult are affected at work by their caregiving responsibilities. Fifteen percent among them report needing to take a leave of absence. As our population ages, the need for caregiving will only grow. That’s why it’s short-sighted to exclude caregivers from a federal paid family leave program.

The list of those who will suffer includes older Americans in need of care, family caregivers whose livelihoods will be placed at risk, businesses that will lose skilled workers and bear the cost of training and recruitment, and the millions of children whose parents belong to the “sandwich” generation (caring for both elders and their own kids). Over time, members of the aging workforce will experience increased incidence of serious illness, creating greater need for paid leave to care for themselves.

These aren’t the only problems with Trump’s anemic proposal. The proposed financing mechanism would require states to establish their own PFL administrative systems through their unemployment insurance (UI) programs. However, this model essentially pits unemployed workers and families that need paid leave against one another by cutting funds from the already-fragile UI system to pay for this new program. Moreover, if states were to set wage replacement at rates comparable to UI benefit levels, which are extremely low, the program would be extremely difficult for low-income workers to use. UI wage replacement rates vary by state, but the average worker receives less than half of his or her wages. In several states, the average UI wage replacement rate is below 40 percent; in these states, full-time workers earning the federal minimum wage would receive only $116 in PFL benefits each week. Virtually no family (or individual) can survive on that income, especially people with heightened financial needs associated with caregiving and illness. Finally, a national paid leave program should establish uniform benefits for all workers, regardless of where they live—a guarantee that this proposal does not make.

By proposing a program that provides only paid parental leave, the Trump Administration is not offering a solution that is “better than nothing.” Rather, this proposal threatens to create a weak paid leave system that would fail to provide assistance to those who need it most. Moreover, if Congress were to pass such a policy, it would shut the door for the foreseeable future on comprehensive legislation like the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act. Moreover, even the paltry benefits of the Trump PFL program would be perpetually imperiled. The weak financing mechanism would make this program—and other supports for working families, including UI—a target for future cuts. Additionally, failing to extend coverage to non-parental caregivers and workers with serious illnesses would weaken public support.

Families, policymakers, and journalists shouldn’t be fooled: Trump’s paid leave proposal is the latest flank in his all-out war on working families.  This proposal, along with his draconian budget, will deeply hurt working families across the country.