House Considers Multiple Ideas for Paid Family Leave

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U.S. Capitol

​Lawmakers seem to agree that Congress should approve a law to give paid family leave to U.S. workers—but they are divided on which proposal to pass.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) became law 27 years ago and offers job-protected unpaid leave to certain employees who work for businesses with at least 50 employees. "We know today that the FMLA is simply not enough," said Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., during a House Ways and Means Committee hearing on Jan. 28. "This is because while the FMLA entitles workers to leave, if that leave isn't paid, many workers simply cannot afford to take it."

Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, agreed that paid-family-leave legislation is a priority for Congress. "Paid family leave is an issue that the president, Republicans and Democrats alike all agree is crucial to succeed in providing greater opportunities for all Americans," he said. "Lawmakers have an opportunity to make it easier for [workers] to balance the competing demands of work and family through an effective paid-family-leave policy."

Democrats Support Broad Benefits

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., sponsored the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, H.R. 1185, which would create a national family and medical leave insurance fund to provide workers with a portion of their wages for up to 60 workdays (12 weeks) in a year. Workers could use the leave to care for their own health condition or that of a relative or to bond with a child following birth or adoption.

The benefits would be funded by a payroll tax on employers and employees and be portable, meaning that so long as workers pay into the system and otherwise qualify for benefits, they can qualify even if they change locations and employers.

Neal supports the FAMILY Act. "If all workers are expected to balance work and family, we need to offer them real wage replacement … so they can pay the bills," he said at the hearing.

For the national economy to be its strongest, people cannot rely on individual state efforts to provide paid leave, Neal added, noting that portable benefits are important for today's mobile workforce. Paid leave increases workplace participation rates, not just for new mothers, but also for family caregivers of any gender and older workers, he said.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Family and Medical Leave]

Several members of the public testified in support of broad coverage. "There's never a good time for a health crisis," said Joan Lunden, former co-host of "Good Morning America." "We are in the middle of a caregiving crisis, and that is why I so strongly believe that any paid-leave policy should address the full range of caregiving needs that families will face."

Kemi Role, director of work equity at National Employment Law Project, said, "We need to move away from a framework in which benefits are tied to a specific employer."

Hadley Heath Manning, director of policy at Independent Women's Forum, opposes the FAMILY Act. She said it would "backfire on workers, particularly women, by reducing the incentive for employers to provide paid family and medical leave benefits and increasing the incentive for workplace discrimination" for those who are perceived as more likely to take leave.

Republicans Support Tax Credits

Brady is concerned that the FAMILY Act would be funded through "a huge tax hike that American workers who are living paycheck to paycheck can't afford." Republicans have proposed several alternatives.

Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Mo., wants to "start building consensus on a budget-neutral program that can become law." She co-sponsored the New Parents Act, which would allow parents to use a portion of their Social Security benefits after the birth or adoption of a child.

"We have put forth a responsible paid-family-leave policy that allows new parents flexibility to spend more time with their children during one of life's most precious and exceptional moments," she said. "This legislation gives new parents the option of paid parental leave without raising taxes or burdening small businesses."

Democrats are concerned about proposals that make workers choose between using Social Security benefits for leave or using them for retirement. "The issue is nonpartisan," DeLauro testified at the hearing. "It is important, however, proposals do not harm people in the process. Many of the proposals, as currently written, will force workers to put their retirement in jeopardy by taking from Social Security or putting families with young children at risk when they need that help the most."

Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., co-sponsored the Advancing Support for Working Families Act, which would allow families to take up to a $5,000 advance of the child tax credit in the first year following birth or adoption. Stefanik called the act a "first-of-its-kind bipartisan, bicameral plan" that allows families to receive child tax credits in advance to offset leave, child care and other expenses. She urged Congress members not to "pit proposals against each other, but instead weigh each innovative proposal."

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