Congress is talking about paid family leave. Will lawmakers do anything? 

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WASHINGTON — Democrats and Republicans in Congress seem to agree on expanding access to paid family leave. 

But they disagree on how to do it. 

U.S. House lawmakers debated three bills on Capitol Hill last week that would take dramatically different approaches to expanding access to paid leave, with Democrats and Republicans deeply divided on the best approach. 

Congress is diving into the issue as polls show that most Americans support paid family and medical leave for all workers. 

The United States lags far behind the rest of the world when it comes to paid leave for new parents — it’s one of only two countries in the United Nations with no statutory national policy of paid maternity leave. 

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Many Democrats in Congress are pushing for the FAMILY Act, which would provide all workers with family and medical leave insurance. 

“Today’s workers need to balance work, childcare, eldercare and other household responsibilities. The changing nature of the American family means that workplace flexibility, and the ability to take paid family and medical leave, is increasingly important,” U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) said. 

Under the bill, workers would be eligible for 60 days or 12 weeks of partial income for the birth or adoption of a child, or the injury or illness of a family member. The program would be funded through a payroll tax of 2 cents for every $10 of wages.

More than 200 House Democrats have signed on to the bill, including Kildee, as has one Republican.

The other six Michigan Democrats also are original co-sponsors: U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn), Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield), Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit), Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Twp.), Haley Stevens (D-Rochester Hills) and Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly).

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Some Republicans, meanwhile, are championing different proposals.

The New Parents Act would allow parents to draw on a portion of their Social Security benefits after the birth or adoption of a child in exchange for delaying or reducing future Social Security benefits. It is backed by 10 Republicans and no Democrats in the House.

There are no Michigan co-sponsors.

A bipartisan bill, the Advancing Support for Working Families Act, would allow families to draw on child tax credits for a year after the birth or adoption of a child. The bill has the support of five Republicans and three Democrats in the House. None are from Michigan.

Companion measures have been introduced in the U.S. Senate. Neither of Michigan’s two Democratic U.S. senators, Debbie Stabenow of Lansing and Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township are co-sponsors of the three measures: the Senate Family Act, Senate New Parents Act and Senate Advancing Support for Working Families Act.

While House lawmakers agreed over the general need for paid family leave, they sparred over which plan would best benefit workers and the economy.

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Republicans called the FAMILY Act a “one-size-fits-all” government mandate. 

It’s “one more tax” on employees and employers, said Florida Republican U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, who voiced support for a tax credit instead.

Conservatives also argued that small businesses should be able to customize benefits packages to meet unique needs and said it could unfairly burden stay-at-home caregivers and people without children.

Democrats, meanwhile, praised the FAMILY Act for its economic benefits and expressed concerns over proposals that would cut worker benefits and leave people uncovered during times of emergency.

Rep. Dan Kildee and House Democrats
U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) speaks at a press conference featuring House Democrats at the U.S. Capitol April 20, 2016, in Washington, DC | Win McNamee, Getty Images

Kildee applauded Gougeon Brothers, Inc., a local Bay City small business founded by Meade and Jan Gougeon, for providing unlimited paid family and medical leave for their employees. 

“Already in Mid-Michigan, we have small businesses like Gougeon Brothers Inc. that provide paid family and medical leave to their employees. Small business owners like the Gougeon Brothers have found that by offering paid family and medical leave, employees are happier, more productive, and more likely to stay employees of the company,” he said. “All Michigan workers should be able to take family and medical leave without worrying about if they will have enough money to pay the bills.”

House Ways and Means Committee Chair Richard Neal (D-Mass.) cited a study finding that a median-earning new mother who took paid leave after the birth of two children would get $11,000 in paid leave benefits but $29,000 less in Social Security benefits under the GOP proposal.

The FAMILY Act directly addresses the “two key ingredients” in gross domestic product — workforce participation and worker productivity, said U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, a Wisconsin Democrat. “This is important for the male workforce as well,” he said, noting that it would support men’s childrearing and family caregiving responsibilities.

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‘Closer than ever’

Despite their disagreements over details, lawmakers of both parties were optimistic about progress.

“This is an issue I think Republicans and Democrats can work together on,” U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, the top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, said Tuesday. 

“Paid leave is finally at the center of our public discourse,” said Connecticut Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, author of the FAMILY Act. “We are closer than ever to making this a reality for families.”

Republican U.S. Reps. Ann Wagner of Missouri and Elise Stefanik of New York — who testified on behalf of GOP-backed bills — said they were encouraged by the bipartisan interest in the issue. 

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The Family and Medical Leave Act, enacted in 1993, provides certain employees job-protected unpaid leave for specified family and medical reasons. But the law does not apply to a large swath of the workforce, and many eligible employees don’t participate because they can’t afford it. 

Last month, President Donald Trump signed into law a bill that gives federal workers 12 weeks of paid leave to care for a newborn or adopted child — extending the same benefits currently given to the military to the 2.1 million civilian members of the federal workforce. The benefits take effect in October.

Eight states and the District of Columbia currently provide paid family leave. In 2018, then-Gov. Rick Snyder signed watered-down paid sick leave legislation allowing for 40 hours per year, but exempts businesses employing 50 or fewer people.

Vicki Shabo, senior fellow for paid leave policy and strategy at the Washington-based think tank New America, said she is encouraged by activity at the state level.

Tuesday’s hearing, she noted in an email, came on the same day as state-level hearings on the issue in Virginia and Pennsylvania and on the heels of other action in Idaho, New Mexico, Tennessee, New Hampshire and Vermont.

“It’s a sign of nationwide momentum,” she said.

Allison Stevens
Allison Stevens is a reporter for States Newsroom's Washington, D.C. bureau.
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Susan J. Demas is a 19-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 3,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 60 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.