Biden’s trimmed paid leave plan lags rest of world by months

US President Joe Biden participates in a CNN town hall at Baltimore Center Stage in Baltimore, Maryland on October 21, 2021. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)
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Chris Marr and Mary Biekert Bloomberg News (TNS)

Democrats’ latest paid family and medical leave proposal would offer workers four weeks annually — significantly lowering the promised benefits and leaving the U.S. lagging much of the world in guaranteed paid time off.

President Joe Biden confirmed on Thursday night’s CNN town hall that the latest version of what could be the country’s first nationwide paid leave plan has been whittled down, as Democrats in Congress negotiate a lower price tag on their sweeping tax-and-spend plan, which is now expected to be less than $2 trillion over 10 years.

A more generous House version of the paid leave proposal initially offered 12 weeks annually for the birth or adoption of a child, or for workers to care for their own or a family member’s serious illness. The plan was estimated to cost $500 billion over 10 years.

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“Four weeks is obviously less than what many people need and what advocates have been pushing for,” said Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow focused on paid leave policy at the New America think tank. Nevertheless, she called it a “historic and transformational start” and said employers, state-run paid leave programs, and potentially Congress could expand on it in the future.

Without a federal program, it’s left up to companies to provide their workers with leave voluntarily in the vast majority of states, which results in mostly high-paid workers getting access to paid time off. Only 23% of workers get paid family leave, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Part of this is not just changing policy, it’s changing culture and norms,” Shabo said.

Four weeks would be a fraction of the paid leave guaranteed to new mothers in much of the developed world. Countries in the European Union provide an average of 22 weeks annually, and those in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development offer 18 weeks on average, according to a 2019 OECD report.

Much of the negative impact of limiting the U.S. program to four weeks instead of 12 will fall on workers of color, who are “often the folks most in need,” said Josephine Kalipeni, executive director at Family Values @ Work, arguing the program should be expanded in the future.

“This is laying a foundation and we have to build something on that foundation,” Kalipeni said.

The White House made the case earlier this month that enacting a paid leave program would increase women’s workforce participation as well as boost the U.S. economy in the form of a higher gross domestic product.

The latest U.S. proposal is estimated to cost $100 billion, subject to further negotiations. Part of the cost reduction comes through giving the program a sunset date, rather than making it permanent — a point that advocates are still fighting in the negotiation process.

“A permanent four-week federal program that supports parental, caregiving and personal medical leave would be a win for working people and families everywhere; however, a temporary paid leave program is insufficient,” Molly Day, executive director of Paid Leave for the U.S., said in an email. “It is imperative that the final bill meets the desperate needs of working families with a permanent federal framework.”

Paid leave supporters and their allies in Congress have been mulling options for weeks on how to lower the cost to avoid the possibility of paid leave being cut entirely from the broader social spending plan.

Of the nine U.S. states plus the District of Columbia with their own paid family and medical leave programs, many offer 12 weeks annually while a few offer six or eight weeks, according to data compiled by the advocacy group A Better Balance. Only Rhode Island’s plan goes as low as four weeks annually for family caregiving, and that benefit is set to increase to six weeks when the program is fully implemented in 2023.

Biden acknowledged a preference for more generous benefits in his town hall remarks Thursday, but indicated the need to lower the price tag to be able to pass the legislation.

“Yeah, it is down to four weeks,” the president said, according to a White House transcript of the event. “And the reason it’s down to four weeks is I can’t get 12 weeks.”

Any amount of leave is better than none, said Maya Rossin-Slater, associate professor of health policy at the Stanford University School of Medicine. But she added that many of the improved health outcomes for newborn babies and their mothers might not be achieved through a benefit as short as four weeks.

“Some of the health benefits of leave are clearly occurring at higher durations,” she said, citing on-time immunizations and increases in breastfeeding as examples.

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