Update: The Build Back Better Act passed in the House on November 19, including four weeks of paid family and medical leave, though it’s not clear whether the policy will remain intact as the bill moves to the Senate.
By most accounts, this seemed to be the year that a federal paid family leave policy would finally become a reality. The pandemic had been the most powerful indicator yet that American workers—only 23% of whom had access to paid leave—desperately needed the financial support. Many low-wage workers, who are disproportionately people of color, could not take sick days without sacrificing their paychecks. (In 2020, barely 8% of those workers had any paid family leave.) Even the business community had, at last, come around to the idea of national paid leave, in part because many companies had reaped the benefits of the temporary paid leave provisions passed in response to the pandemic.
And women had dropped out of the workforce at staggering rates, beset by job losses and the unequal burden of caregiving responsibilities. “We always talk about [paid leave] as an issue for all workers, not just women,” says Sherry Leiwant, the copresident of advocacy group A Better Balance. “But the fact of the matter is that the job of caring for family has fallen on women.”
Despite all this, the future of national paid leave remains up in the air. Paid leave had been a pillar of President Biden’s caregiving platform: In the original version of the Build Back Better Act, the social safety net bill crafted over the summer, Democrats had earmarked $500 billion for 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, along with additional funding for universal pre-K and extending the child tax credit. But some moderate Democrats, including senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, balked at the bill’s $3.5 trillion price tag—its estimated cost over the course of 10 years. (Democrats only need a simple majority, not the usual 60-vote threshold, to pass a bill through the budget reconciliation process, which means they don’t need any Republican support if all Democrats are on board.)
Amid lengthy negotiations over the social spending bill and the $1 trillion infrastructure package that just passed, the Democrats eventually scaled back the scope of the paid leave policy to just four weeks. Soon after, paid leave disappeared from the proposed bill altogether, cut from both a compromise framework delivered by Biden as well as the draft put forth by the House. The public outcry was swift, reflecting just how popular paid leave has become among Americans and the impact of years of continued pressure from advocates. (Meghan Markle even took it upon herself to personally call senators to advocate for a paid leave provision.)
It was also a major disappointment for many lawmakers, including figures like Kirsten Gillibrand, who had pushed for paid leave over the years. “There were a number of House members and senators who were truly incensed that something they had campaigned on and fought for had been dropped,” says Vicki Shabo, senior fellow in paid leave policy and strategy at think tank New America.
By last week, a four-week paid leave policy had been reintroduced into the $1.85 trillion spending bill by House speaker Nancy Pelosi. But it’s not clear that even this version of the paid leave program will survive the ongoing negotiations intact, or that holdouts like Manchin—who maintains the policy will be a burden on businesses—will budge. Manchin seems to be “undergoing an education process,” Shabo says. “I think the next stage is to infuse him with a dose of reality about the urgency of now and the historical elusiveness of bipartisanship around a comprehensive, inclusive policy.” While there is bipartisan support for paid leave, Republicans have been unanimously opposed to its inclusion in this bill. Historically, Democrats and Republicans have also disagreed on how to fund paid leave, so the chances of arriving at a bipartisan consensus on future legislation seems slim.
Still, advocates for paid leave remain optimistic, especially in light of the public response and sustained commitment from lawmakers. “I’m feeling very heartened by the public outpouring of support,” Shabo says. “It underscores the need that’s out there, and the visceral disbelief that this is a policy that people don’t have here and do have in other parts of the world.”
While four weeks of paid leave is a notable step down from the original proposal, it would still be momentous if it comes to pass. The U.S. is one of only six countries in the world without any paid leave guaranteed at the national level (though of the countries that provide paid leave, the vast majority offer more than four weeks, whether that’s for maternity leave or medical reasons). The proposal is also unique for its inclusive definition of caregiving, which extends well beyond the parental leave policies that are popular in the rest of the world.
“The paid leave community has fought for a 12-week program as our floor for over a decade,” says PL+US executive director Molly Day. “But what’s most important in our view is that we set up a federal framework that guarantees paid leave, even at four weeks. For most Americans, four weeks of paid leave is more than they’ve had, because most Americans do not have a single day of paid leave.”
If four weeks of paid leave does pass—or even if it does not—advocates say the path forward would be some combination of public and private measures to supplement federal legislation. Paid family leave has already passed at the state level across nine states and Washington, D.C., which ensures more than four weeks of coverage. (The most recent addition was Colorado, which was also the first state to pass paid leave through a ballot measure.) Federal workers in the U.S. receive 12 weeks of paid parental leave, and a number of private sector employers already match or exceed that policy.
“Having four weeks minimum provides room for employers that want to do better,” Shabo says. “So we’ll see employers in a virtuous cycle. I think it’s certainly possible that states would create pop-up programs similar to what they’ve done with SSI, the low income support program for people with disabilities.” Regardless of whether the policy passes at the federal level, Day believes more and more politicians will take up paid leave as a plank of their policy platform.
Still, it’s hard to overstate the symbolism of a federal program that would cover all workers and all kinds of caregiving, regardless of how many weeks of paid leave it ultimately offers. “It creates a culture where care is valued and normalized,” Shabo says. “Right now, we have nothing. What’s holding us back is that there’s a norm of nothing.”