How Potential Democratic Presidents Would Change Parental Leave Policies In 2016

The candidates agree on supporting paid leave for new parents, but how they’ll achieve it is where differences arise.

How Potential Democratic Presidents Would Change Parental Leave Policies In 2016
[Photo: Joe Raedle/Staff/Getty Images]

If you were paying attention to the Democratic presidential debate last night, you probably heard this: “That is an international embarrassment that we do not provide paid family and medical leave.”


That came from Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator, who contends that every other major country in the world, even some small ones, allows new parents to take time off from work with pay after a baby is born.

Sanders mentioned his support for 12 weeks of paid leave for mothers and fathers in his introduction and reiterated it later in the proceedings, as did Hillary Clinton. Former governor of Maryland Martin O’Malley echoed his opponents’ stance, while Senator Jim Webb and former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee didn’t get a chance to chime in.

A quick fact check: a 2014 report by the International Labour Organization revealed that among the 185 countries reviewed, only the United States and Papua New Guinea did not have public policies for paid maternity leave. The report also found that 78 of those countries also mandated paternity leave, with 70 of those providing paid leave to new fathers.

Currently in the United States, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 offers eligible workers at companies of more than 50 employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid family leave per year, which includes taking care of a child after birth or adoption as well as for illness. To continue earning money, they are able to use any paid vacation or sick time accrued at the job and keep their health benefits. Their job is supposed to be held for their return.

This policy has been supplemented in states such as Massachusetts, Rhode Island, California, Connecticut, and New Jersey, which now offer paid family and medical leave. In September, the U.S. Department of Labor launched a campaign called #LeadOnLeave to drum up more widespread support for paid parental leave.


This is a hot-button issue between the GOP and the Democrats. GOP candidate Carly Fiorina voiced opposition to a mandate, saying that it would hurt business. Some companies, like Netflix and Adobe, have taken the lead and created their own generous policies. But the economics of a national mandate suggest otherwise.

According to the U.S. Census, 40% of first-time mothers have to take unpaid leave, including a quarter who either quit or are fired when their babies arrive. Those who can take paid leave are more likely to return to the same job, which could offer them a raise further in their career, according to research from Rutgers University.

The key word is family. Dads have to be included in the policy because it helps maintain the balance between genders at work. A mother’s future earnings increased by 7% every month the father takes off, according to the Institute for Labor Market Policy in Sweden. The impact on the American economy is also worth noting. Economists say that if American women worked at the same rates men did, the U.S. GDP would grow by 9%.

What would such a policy look like if one of these five took office in 2016? Here’s a look at their standings on the issue and their previous legislative actions, where applicable. (A side note to those working behind the campaign websites: Searches for a candidate’s name + “paid parental leave” often pointed to a full page of news articles, not an official site.)

Bernie Sanders

Outspoken about his socialist leanings and his regard for Scandinavian countries’ politics, Bernie Sanders would prefer that the U.S. mirrored places like Denmark when it comes to paid parental leave.


In a fact sheet from his senate’s office website, Sander’s outlines a family values agenda that includes the importance of paid vacation and sick days, citing an Oxford Economics study that found the economy would benefit from more than $160 billion in total business sales, $21 billion in tax revenues, and 1.2 million additional jobs would be supported in industries like retail and manufacturing.

To achieve this, Sanders cosponsored Senator Kristen Gillibrand’s FAMILY Act to provide 12 weeks of paid family leave.

The FAMILY Act would accomplish the following:

  • Enable workers to earn 66% of their monthly wages, up to a capped amount.
  • Cover workers in all companies, no matter their size. Younger, part-time, lower-wage, and contingent workers would be eligible for benefits.
  • Be funded by small employee and employer payroll contributions of two-tenths of one percent each (two cents per $10 in wages), or about $1.50 per week for a typical worker.
  • Be administered through a new Office of Paid Family and Medical Leave within the Social Security Administration. Payroll contributions would cover both insurance benefits and administrative costs.

Hillary Clinton

Although she’s said, “Too often, these are called women’s issues,” Hillary Clinton’s webmaster filed paid parental leave under the women’s issues tab on her campaign site. Clinton sees it this way: “Well, I am a proud lifelong fighter for women’s issues, because I firmly believe what’s good for women is good for America . . . As far as I’m concerned, any issue that affects women’s lives and futures is a women’s issue.”

According to Clinton’s site, a quarter of all women in America return to work within 10 days of having a child because they have no paid leave. That has to change, she says.


During the debate, she reiterated her position, citing her own experience as a new mother juggling a career and child care, but didn’t offer much in the way of a solution.

Back in September at a rally in Ohio, Clinton said: “People say to me, ‘How will that work economically?’ Well, it works in most of the rest of the advanced economic world, and it works in a far-off place known as California.

“I know it can work. We just have to make up our minds that we want it to work.”

Lincoln Chafee

In 2013, when he was governor of Rhode Island, the state passed paid family leave legislation. The law was structured so that about 80% of the private workforce could start paying into a program for an average of 83 cents a month, which would give them access to up to four weeks of leave to take care of a new child or sick or injured family members. By 2016, the amount of potential paid family leave a worker could earn would rise to eight weeks. This is similar to New Jersey’s and California’s programs.

As president, Chafee says on his site, he would address the workers not covered by the federal Family Medical Leave Act.


Martin O’Malley

Martin O’Malley echoed Clinton during the debate on the topic of paid parental leave, but he did point out that he oversaw the expansion of paid leave during his tenure as governor in Maryland.

The Maryland Parental Leave Act requires companies with 15 to 50 employees to offer six weeks of unpaid family leave.

“All parents—both men and women, gay or straight, married or single—should be able to take at least 12 weeks of leave, with pay,” O’Malley wrote in an op-ed in the Cedar Rapids Gazette.

On his campaign site, he reiterates that too many Americans have to choose between careers and children with particular emphasis on women. Then he adds, echoing Hillary Clinton again, “Maternity leave, paternity leave, equal pay, and safe and affordable child care are not luxuries. They are the hallmarks of a strong, inclusive economy—because when women succeed, America succeeds.”

How he plans to achieve this is still not clear.


Jim Webb

Though he complained about the fact that he wasn’t getting as much air time as his opponents, Senator Jim Webb of Virginia got his 15 minutes (15:35 to be exact–more than Lincoln Chafee).

Unfortunately, Webb didn’t use that time to discuss paid leave, nor is there a special section on his campaign site that details his stand on the issue.

What we do know is that Webb introduced a bill to act as companion legislation to paid parental leave policy for federal employees in 2008.

The bill aligned federal parental leave policies with a provision in the senate version of the fiscal 2009 defense authorization bill, which allows up to 21 days of paid paternity leave for members of the military.

Targeting military fathers makes sense here, as Webb did reference his military service as a marine in Vietnam several times, most notably when answering Anderson Cooper’s question regarding the enemy the candidates were most proud to make. Webb’s reply, “The enemy soldier that threw the grenade that wounded me, but he’s not around right now to talk to.”


About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.