As Sen. Marco Rubio gets ready to introduce new paid family leave legislation, Ivanka Trump — who has fashioned herself into a champion of the cause — says her ideal plan is more ambitious than what Republicans have been discussing.
In a nutshell, the Republicans have put forth a rather limited plan to address the fact that the U.S. is the only industrialised country missing a federal paid leave policy. Sen. Rubio and other members of the GOP back a proposal, released by the conservative Independent Women’s Forum (IWF) earlier this year, that allows for 12 weeks paid leave, amounting to about 45% of the average worker's wages. It stops at new parents, including adoptive ones, and would be paid for by dipping into your Social Security benefits — two heavily criticised features.
The Democrats think this doesn't go far enough and are dubious about the source of funding — and Ivanka Trump, first daughter and adviser to the president, seems to agree with them on at least one of those points, although she ultimately stands behind a more pared-down plan.
"My preference is to go beyond parental leave," Ivanka told Refinery29 as she glided through the hallway of the Dirksen Senate Office Building after Wednesday's hearing on paid family leave, held in front of a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Finance. "But...right now we are at zero weeks of paid leave. We don't have parental, we don't have caregiving. So we have to move off that mark — it's been 25 years since FMLA was passed."
My preference is to go beyond parental leave. But...right now we are at zero weeks of paid leave. We don't have parental, we don't have caregiving.
FMLA (the Family Medical Leave Act), passed in 1993, allows workers 12 weeks of leave to take care of a child or sick relative, although only about 60% of all employees are eligible for it since it's restricted to companies with over 50 people. It's also unpaid, which is the piece of the puzzle that puts us far behind other industrialised countries. This often leaves workers having to make the tough decision between a job and their family, unable to spend time with a sick child or dying parent because they need to take care of the bottom line.
Both Democrats and Republicans seem confident that they can come to a bipartisan agreement on this issue at some point — although their ideas are quite different.
The Democrats have been pushing for the FAMILY Act, first introduced in 2013, which would provide workers with up to 12 weeks' partial income, covering up to two-thirds of wages, and — unlike the Republican plan — covers caregiving and one's own health conditions. This means you get time off not only to care for a newborn child, but to care for a sick parent or other relative, or yourself if you get ill.
"To make progress and advance legislation that we can sign into law, we need to bring both sides together to discuss the merits of different policy proposals and ultimately bridge the differences," said Trump. "And I'm hopeful that this was a step in the right direction."
New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who on Wednesday testified in favour of the FAMILY Act — which she was key in crafting — said she is "willing to talk about ways to pay for [a paid family leave plan]" with Republicans, but that she ultimately thinks the cleanest, easiest way is for taxpayers to chip in a couple of dollars a week.
"It’s the cost of a cup of coffee a week; it’s not a lot of money. I would pay $2 a week. Would you pay $2 a week?" she asked reporters. "I bet you would!"
Speaking with Refinery29, Sen. Gillibrand acknowledged what she says is the limited scope of the Republicans' plan.
"Every family in America, every worker in America, is going to have a time in their life when they need to take care of a loved one, whether it’s a new child, a sick child, a parent who’s dying, or a spouse who’s sick," she said. "And unfortunately today, too many people have to make that choice, that very tough choice, between a paycheck, a job, and caring for their loved ones. So we need to make sure that we have a paid leave plan that’s comprehensive and that covers all workers."
According to the Department of Labor, 19% of workers take FMLA so they can care for a sick family member, 22% for the birth or adoption of a child, and 57% for their own illnesses, which means most leave-takers wouldn't be covered under the current GOP proposal.
We need to make sure that we have a paid leave plan that’s comprehensive and that covers all workers.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand
So while both sides of the aisle agree that the U.S. needs to climb out of the Middle Ages and pass some sort of paid leave policy — a recent poll found that 90% of Democrats and 75% of Republicans support this move — they disagree on how to get it done.
Vicki Shabo, vice president for workplace policies and strategies with the National Partnership for Women & Families, who testified at Wednesday’s hearing, backs Sen. Gillibrand's bill.
"Bipartisanship shouldn't be out of reach and today's hearing is a very welcome development," she told Refinery29. "But the Rubio plan would do more harm than good," she said, being parents-only and "[forcing] parents to choose between paid leave and retirement security."
Shabo said there has been a lot of action when it comes to paid leave legislation on the state level recently, and that successful state policies have been the model for the FAMILY Act. In six states and Washington, D.C., there are either policies in place or there will be soon. And more than half of all states have considered some form of paid leave, which studies show has a positive effect on business productivity, profitability, and even employee morale. In Washington state, she said, the recently enacted law was the "product of true bipartisan negotiation and compromise," which she said should be an example for the country as a whole.
Can that be achieved on the Hill? The mood is tentatively hopeful. Now that there's been a bipartisan national conversation, "Maybe we’ll work together to find a bill that is a good compromise," said Sen. Gillibrand.