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Paid Family Leave in the Political Spotlight

News & Features | November 7, 2016

In a speech on September 13, Donald Trump became the first major conservative voice to advocate for a federally funded paid maternity leave policy. He gave the speech flanked by his daughter Ivanka, who he thanked for “her work and leadership on the issues facing working moms in our country.”

Trump’s speech reflects a cultural shift—never before has a conservative presidential candidate advocated for what was considered a niche progressive issue. For the first time in history, both presidential candidates have developed policies on paid family leave, and while the plans differ substantially—Clinton’s covers not just maternity leave, but paternity, medical and family care leave—both are unequivocal in their calls for increased governmental support of a work-life balance. This shift reflects changing gender dynamics in this country; both in the ever-increasing role American women play in our workforce and with the historic visibility of Clinton’s candidacy.

The Federal Government took its first steps towards granting family and medical leave for workers with the signing of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in 1993. This law, passed by Bill Clinton, was the first national-level attempt to protect American workers who became sick or who needed to care for a family member. The FMLA guaranteed 12 weeks of protected but unpaid leave from work for workers who had recently become parents (either through adoption or birth), who were ill, or who needed to care for ailing family members. This was a groundbreaking expansion of workers’ rights in the US. It is also, in many ways, inadequate.

To begin with, the FMLA only created an unpaid leave system. Workers can take 12 weeks for medical reasons or to care for a family member without penalty, but they will be offered no financial support during that time. Those unable to afford living without an income for 12 weeks are unable to use the available FMLA leave time.

Additionally, the bill was designed to benefit only employees of traditional white collar jobs—eligibility was limited to employees of large companies and to employees putting in at least 25 hours at a business who had employed them for over a year, which is just 40 percent of the workforce. Wage workers, part time employees, and employees of small businesses (ironically, America’s most vulnerable workers) are left unprotected.

This low standard of protection is unique to America among economically advanced countries. The US ranks at the bottom of every measure of paid family leave compared to other Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries—it is the only OECD country without a federally mandated paid maternity leave, one of only nine without paid paternity leave, and one of only two with no guaranteed paid sick days.

Natalie Masuoka, a Tufts political science professor conducting research on family leave policy in the United States, bemoans the gap in coverage. “The US looks super rudimentary when compared to other advanced economies which have always been supportive of family leave, or at least of leave for women having children,” she said. “European countries have had job-protected paid family leave as part of their social welfare programs starting in the late 1960s, back when Americans were just beginning to define what constitutes pregnancy discrimination.”

Despite this low federal standard, some Americans do have access to some form of paid family leave. Residents of California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and New York have some form of paid family leave guaranteed by state law—when workers in these states are forced to take time off of work for medical leave or to take care of an ill family member they are eligible to receive a portion of their income, paid for by the state, for a set number of weeks. This state level paid family leave is funded through statewide disability insurance funded by income tax. Workers in these states pay a portion of their income into a fund that they can draw from in time of need, similar to Social Security.

Additionally, the Department of Labor reports that 12 percent of Americans get paid family leave through their employer. Benefits-eligible Tufts faculty members (which excludes part time faculty and staff), for example, may receive 12 weeks of paid family leave after having a baby and six months of paid leave for illness. But, just as with vacation days and life insurance, paid family leave is offered to employees at the discretion of employers.

There is a dramatic disparity in what benefits different states offer. The federal baseline is low, but some states and employers have progressive programs nonetheless.

At the state level, family leave policy grew independently of federal family leave policy; the policies of California, Rhode Island, New York, and New Jersey grew out of existing disability funds (programs that worked like insurance for workers injured on the job) established as early as the 1940s. In response to activism led by workers’ rights and feminist organizations, these funds were then expanded to protect not only those injured on the job, but also to workers who needed time off of work to care for family members, as well as new parents and ill workers. In these states, the funding existed before policy was written. The FMLA never had financial backing to begin with.

The motivations for employers to offer more generous policies to their employees vary. Some, like Netflix, boast of their progressive corporate policies to attract strong candidates and to cultivate an image of being a moral and decent business. In other cases, policies are written in reaction to employee activism and scandal. Massachusetts Institute of Technology now has some of the most progressive paid leave policies in the country, but this policy wasn’t written until Professor Nancy Hopkins collected data about gendered discrimination at the university, proving that their lack of a paid leave policy was just one of the many ways women were kept out of the academy, a part of a greater culture of exclusion.

It is also true that some employers have always understood the importance of paid family leave and their corporate culture intentionally created progressive policies. Political science Professor Elizabeth Remick, a co-chair of Tufts’ AS&E Committee on Faculty Work/Life, explains that this is true of women’s colleges, where faculty often enjoy disproportionately progressive paid leave policies. Paid family leave is technically a gender-neutral policy, but women have historically taken on more caretaking responsibilities as our society continues to put the burden of family care onto women. A 2015 report commissioned by the Department of Labor confirmed that women are more likely to take FMLA-style leave than men. It is not surprising, then, that institutions created by and for women offer more supportive paid leave policies.

This gendered understanding of paid leave might explain the presence of paid leave as an issue in the 2016 election. Masuoka explained the particular discourse of this year’s election, saying, “I don’t think there has been a time like this before, where we are talking about paid leave, or the social safety net in general, on the national platform.”

Clinton has supported a national paid family leave policy since her 2008 run for president, and Trump followed suit in September of this year. This would be a remarkable change to American political culture, which seems to be shifting to hold paid leave not as a privilege for workers, but as a right. This is in no doubt in part due to in part to changing American gender norms. As fewer women stay at home and are able to act as caretakers and as more households are becoming reliant on two incomes, American families need access to paid leave more than ever. Additionally, paid leave is only now being seriously considered in this election, the first ever to include a female candidate from a major party. As American women become full participants in the labor force and have a seat at the legislative table, it seems more than likely that we will see the development of a more robust paid family leave policy.