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This Is the Year We Pass Paid Leave

1 1 6
24.09.2021

In 1984, a group of female attorneys huddled over a typewriter in an office of the Women’s Legal Defense Fund, now the National Partnership for Women & Families. They punched out a document that would eventually become the Family and Medical Leave Act, which today guarantees eligible workers 12 weeks of unpaid time off. To get the idea out into the world, they rolled out copies through a mimeograph machine.

Those women had originally wanted to push Congress to pass a national mandate for paid leave to welcome a newborn, care for a sick or disabled family member, or recover from a serious illness. But they soon realized that even passing unpaid leave would be a slog. “People were calling us communists. They said that this was going to be the end of capitalism as we know it in this country,” Debra Ness, one of the women in that office and president of the National Partnership, recalled with a laugh. “They thought we were nuts.” It took eight years from the first introduction of the FMLA until Congress passed it, only to have President George H. W. Bush veto it twice.

Today congressional legislation is crafted on laptops, and policy ideas are disseminated through tweets. It’s been nearly three decades since President Bill Clinton signed the FMLA into law, but in all that time, we’ve gone without a national guarantee of paid leave, leaving three-quarters of the private workforce without the benefit. Until, perhaps, now.

Advocates and Democratic supporters agree: This is the year that the country enacts a permanent, federal paid family leave program. “It is the year, and it better be the year,” said Ellen Bravo, a founder of Family Values @ Work, who has been working on paid leave as long as Ness.

Barring a total legislative meltdown, advocates believe some form of paid leave is going to be included in the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill, even if the price tag comes down during negotiations. Given the growing consensus around paid leave, it may seem almost unremarkable, perhaps inevitable, that its time has come. But if paid leave does really get signed into law, it will mark an enormous transformation of our safety net — one of the rare moments when the country enacts a new universal benefit.

“A comprehensive, national paid family and medical leave program has the capacity to be as important to American families today as Social Security was in the ’30s,” said Vicki Shabo, senior fellow at the New America foundation. It “will literally touch every household in America at one point or another.” And it will mark a shift in the country’s stance toward the work that goes into taking care of other people, signaling that it is “an important activity that has value, not just to each individual household, but value to the economy and everyone else,” Shabo said. “This is a once-in-a-generation moment to make change.”

Back in the ’90s, when advocates realized there was no path forward for paid leave in Congress, they turned their attention to the states. In 2002 California became the first to pass its own program,........

© Daily Intelligencer


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