Some congressional Democrats have announced they want to find areas to work with President-elect Trump and point to paid leave as an example. As an activist and a legislator, we know the legislative process means we seldom get everything we want in a particular bill.
But our starting point for any piece of legislation should be simple: does the measure move us in the right direction? Does it mitigate, rather than exacerbate, a particular problem?
Like the vast majority of voters, we’re hungry for a way to make family leave affordable. We’re outraged that the United States of America is one of only two countries in the world that has no paid leave policy. And we’re horrified at the reality that nearly one in four pregnant women who are employed go back to work within two weeks of giving birth, mostly because they can’t afford unpaid time.
We were glad to hear the President-elect talk about the need for relief for working women. But those of us who have fought for decades for affordable leave cannot support his flawed proposal for paid maternity leave, and members of Congress who believe in real policy change for working families should not support it either.
The proposed policy would give only partial pay for six weeks through a state unemployment fund to employed women who give birth. That’s too little time, too little money, covering too few people, relying on a program that is already severely under-funded, and adds rather than removes barriers to women.
For starters, six weeks falls far short of what doctors recommend for infant bonding. Dr. Benard Dreyer, the head of the American Academy of Pediatricians, calls 12 weeks “a very modest minimum” and reminds us that infancy is a critical period for child health and development.
“We know that at least 12 weeks of parental leave does make a significant difference,” Dr. Dreyer told NPR. “Without paid and job-protected family leave, most parents — especially low-income, working parents — will not take time off. They just can’t afford it. But I don’t think we, as a society, can afford to not have them nurture their child during this critical period.”
The proposal itself is also based on a false premise: that only women care for children, and only children need to be cared for. Biological mothers aren’t alone in needing time to care for their children. Dads, adoptive parents, foster parents, same-sex couples, and trans parents are excluded from the president-elect’s proposal.
While gender-neutral policies allow all parents to be engaged at work and at home, policies that view women as having sole responsibility for care taking can jeopardize their employment and career prospects. A disparate leave plan will add to the barriers for women in hiring and advancement by reinforcing stereotypes about caregiving.
Children aren’t the only ones who get short shrift in President-Elect Trump’s proposal. Even those of us who aren’t parents have parents, partners and other loved ones who may at times need care – not to mention our own surgeries and heart attacks and bouts with cancer. Illness affects almost everyone. Yet all these caregiving needs are excluded in the Trump plan.
The mechanism to pay for this proposal is also problematic. As the National Employment Law Project (NELP) points out, using existing unemployment insurance as the source of funding is unworkable. The benefit itself is too low: on average, a new mother would receive only a third of her average weekly wage.
That would hurt the lowest-paid workers and add to already growing inequality. The unemployment system is also grossly unprepared if another recession hits. According to NELP, as of the end of 2015, barely more than a third of the states – and none of the 13 largest – had the level of preparedness reserve funds recommended by the federal government. Ultimately, Trump’s plan pits people who are struggling to get by against one another.
The Trump maternity leave policy fails every crucial test. The bottom line: it will not help all families be families.
There are policies the congressional leadership could get behind. Pending in Congress right now is a bill known as the FAMILY Act, which addresses these issues by pooling small amounts from employees and employers to create a dedicated revenue stream that workers can draw on when they need time to care. This model has already been put into practice in several states, demonstrating a cost-effective approach that boosts workers’ economic security, families’ well-being, public health and the overall economy.
Families and businesses alike in those states and elsewhere support these paid leave programs for multiple reasons: they cut down on turnover, make it easier for small businesses to compete for talent, create happier employees and healthier families — and, not least, put money in the pockets of customers. And they allow families to care for themselves and their loved ones without having to sacrifice a paycheck.
States around the country will continue to introduce paid leave bills, and those with existing programs will continue to improve upon them as we work to make leave affordable and accessible to those who need it most. Unlike President-elect Trump’s proposal, publicly-run family and medical leave insurance actually works. We look forward to bipartisan work in Congress on substantive bills that move us forward — but in doing so, we must reject ineffective policies that will set families and our economy back.
Gayle Goldin is a state Senator from Rhode Island who introduced successful paid leave legislation in that state. She advises Family Values @ Work’s paid leave campaigns.
Ellen Bravo directs Family Values @ Work, a network of coalitions in 24 states working to pass policies like paid family and medical leave and paid sick days.
This op-ed appeared December 9, 2016 in The Hill