On April 28, 2021, in his first presidential address to Congress, President Joe Biden announced his American Families Plan. Biden intended it as a follow up to the American Rescue Plan, which provided relief to families and communities impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Among the elements in the plan is one calling for a paid family and medical leave program. The Families Plan version of the paid leave takes several of the elements of the Family Act, which was proposed by House Democrats in 2019 but failed to reach a floor vote.
The currently proposed Families Plan would provide paid leave on a basis similar to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which currently provides unpaid leave of up to 12 weeks. The paid Families Plan would be a social insurance model similar to those implemented in several states, as well as the District of Columbia. Like the proposed Family Act, it would be administered through a new office to be known as the Office of Paid Family and Medical Leave within the Social Security Administration.
Under the proposed plan, most employees would receive at least two-thirds of their average weekly wages, up to a maximum of $4,000 per month. The lowest wage earners would receive a minimum of 80% of their average weekly wages. The leave could be used for the birth of a child, to treat an employee’s own serious illness, to care for a sick family member, to handle the military deployment of a spouse or immediate family member, and to address issues related to sexual assault, stalking, or domestic violence. The amount of paid leave available would gradually increase to 12 weeks by the 10th year of the program. Unlike the FMLA, which only applies to employers with 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius, the provisions of the proposed plan would apply to employers with 15 or more employees.
Recently, more than 80 Democrats in the House, including several well-known progressives, sent a letter to the White House urging the Biden administration to include paid family and medical leave in the proposed infrastructure bill. They see it as another means of helping families recover from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. While it was not included in the infrastructure bill recently passed by the Senate, as of this writing, preliminary reports are that paid family and medical leave will be prepared as part of the pending 2022 Budget Reconciliation. However, the final version of the legislation has yet to be prepared. Given the numerous other social safety net items that are being discussed as possible inclusions, it is difficult to predict whether or not it will be included in the final legislation.
Some form of a national, paid family and medical leave program is supported by a majority of U.S. workers. One of the findings supporting the proposed 2019 Family Act was that such a program “has the support of more than eight in 10 voters across demographic and party lines.” A Rasmussen poll taken shortly before the Family Act was proposed found that 51% of Americans believe that the government should require employers to provide 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave. Only 29% of those responding disagreed. Even during the Trump administration there was discussion of some type of paid family leave. It was reported that President Donald Trump supported a six-week paid family leave requirement, but it never developed into a legislative proposal. In addition, Ivanka Trump was a vocal advocate for paid family leave and worked with Senate Republicans to build support for such a bill.
While paid family and medical leave has had bipartisan support for some time, it has yet to result in legislation to be voted on. For example, in 2018 Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida proposed a bill that would permit parents to apply for at least two months of paid leave, funded by a delay in receipt of Social Security benefits. The proposal made little progress due to concern that utilizing Social Security benefits would erode the program and/or lead to the benefit’s use for other non-retirement reasons. At about the same time, Sens. Joni Ernst of Iowa and Mike Lee of Utah joined in proposing a paid leave bill similar to Rubio’s. There was also a bipartisan paid leave proposal from Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana. Also, as noted earlier, House Democrats proposed the Family Act in 2018, provisions of which have been incorporated into the current Families Plan.
There is no question that paid family and medical leave remains a popular benefit that a majority of American workers support. In fact, several states, generally states with Democratic legislatures and governors, have already adopted some form of paid family leave. It remains to be seen whether at the federal level the priority that Democrats have placed on the issue will be sufficient to result in legislation that can become law in a sharply divided Congress.