Politics & Policy

Republicans Need to Wake Up on Paid Leave

(Gary Cameron/Reuters)
There are better and less expensive ways to help families.

The state of Colorado is currently considering the FAMLI Act, a proposal to create a new state-level paid-leave entitlement program. In previous years, this legislation was dead on arrival, but after the 2018 shift that gave Democrats control of the Centennial State, it has a good chance to become law. This would make Colorado the sixth state (plus Washington, D.C.) to enact such a sweeping program, wherein the state pays benefits to workers who have a life event (such as the birth or adoption of a child, or the serious illness of a loved one) so they can take leave from their jobs. The price tag for these benefits is paid for by new payroll taxes on all workers (and some employers too, in Washington state).

The states are meant to be laboratories of democracy. Let’s hope Republicans learn the right lessons from states like Colorado.

Paid-leave proposals are overwhelmingly popular with the public: Eighty-two percent of voters support legislation to expand paid family leave, and 78 percent specifically support a government fund for paid family and medical leave.

Perhaps support for these proposals is so high because voters rarely hear about the downsides. Those include not just a considerable tax hit but also fewer employment opportunities and the loss of current employer-provided benefits. Americans also frequently hear that the status quo is a near-crisis, as only 13 percent of Americans have paid family-leave benefits at work. But this statistic is misleading; most full-time workers have access to and use paid time off, whether through sick leave, personal leave, or vacation time. It just isn’t categorized as “family leave.”

To be sure, there are certainly many workers who lack paid leave and who already live paycheck to paycheck and face real hardship when they need time off from work. About half of low-income parents who lack leave end up on some form of government assistance after their baby is born, making it less likely they will return to work at all. This reality — and Americans’ compassion for struggling families — makes opposing government action hard. The president has called on Congress to develop a plan to expand access to paid leave. Some conservative organizations have even embraced a watered-down version of the Democrats’ entitlement plan.

The business community plays a critical role in this debate too. In Denver, the Chamber of Commerce, along with several other business, nonprofit, and local-government groups, has met with the FAMLI Act’s sponsors and hopes to get changes before it’s introduced. For business groups, the writing is on the wall: Negotiate or capitulate.

Nationally, businesses often become frustrated with a patchwork of state and local laws. If enough states enact paid-leave entitlement programs, business interests may flip from opposing a paid-leave entitlement to supporting a national solution to replace or streamline multiple state and local programs.

Thoughtful conservatives are looking for ways to thread the needle and expand access to paid family leave without growing government, by making our existing safety-net programs better rather than bigger. Independent Women’s Forum proposed allowing individual workers to choose to delay their Social Security retirement benefits in exchange for parental benefits following the birth or adoption of a child.

This “earned leave” approach — now being advanced in the Senate by Republicans Marco Rubio (Fla.), Joni Ernst (Iowa), and Mike Lee (Utah), and in the House of Representatives by Ann Wagner (R., Mo.) — would be a far better federal solution than Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D., N.Y.) FAMILY Act, a costly new one-size-fits-all entitlement program.

The political drama of Washington, D.C., may dominate the news, but some of the nation’s most critical policy debates are happening in statehouses. We can learn not only from the policies they enact but also from how political realities play out. Republicans in particular ought to wake up, play close attention to Colorado, and prepare for the fight ahead.

Hadley Heath Manning is the policy director at Independent Women’s Forum, a fellow at the Steamboat Institute, and a working mom in Denver, Colo.

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