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Republican Sen. Deb Fischer called herself a “champion for paid family leave” at the Aug. 27 Nebraska Senate candidate debate in Grand Island, Neb.
“What I hear from young women across this country is that paid family leave is the thing they want us most to achieve, and I did that in the United States Senate and we got that bill passed in the tax bill,” Fischer said, referring to the recently enacted Republican tax law. The legislation includes her provision offering tax incentives for companies offering certain types of paid leave.
New York Democrat Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand started talking about a national paid leave program in 2013 and continues to push for a national solution as she hits the campaign trail seeking re-election for a third term. That’s even though New York state law already requires most employers to offer leave benefits.
“It’s an economic issue not just for women but for the workforce,” Glen Caplin, a senior adviser to the senator, told Bloomberg Law.
Fischer and Gillibrand are among several congressional candidates talking about paid family leave on the campaign trail this election cycle. It’s a rare labor-related issue to spur bipartisan support, but lawmakers have yet to agree on a permanent solution. Fischer’s tax incentive expires in two years.
Although voters appear to widely support paid leave initiatives, political observers warn that the idea of a national paid leave program will not encourage voters to polls. Immigration, gun control, and President Donald Trump are likely to get more attention.
The “big X-factor” for every election this midterm “is Donald Trump,” Larry Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, told Bloomberg Law.
Nearly two-thirds (61 percent) of respondents in a June poll told the Pew Research Center that their feelings about Trump will factor into their midterm votes. They also identified immigration and health care as the two most important policy issues in the elections.
Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and a White House adviser, has encouraged lawmakers to do something to secure paid leave for workers, especially those in states that don’t already have similar laws on the books. She recently backed Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s legislation (S. 3345) that would offer paid family leave by allowing workers to temporarily borrow from their Social Security retirement funds.
The measure, which currently has no co-sponsors, has drawn criticism from some conservative groups that say the Social Security system already is going broke and that long stretches of required paid leave could cause chaos for small businesses. Ivanka Trump called it the start for further conversations on paid leave.
Some paid leave supporters see a role for the issue on the campaign trail.
“We’re seeing paid leave come up in lots of races,” Vicki Shabo, vice president for workplace policies and strategies at the National Partnership for Women & Families, told Bloomberg Law. “It is a kitchen-table issue that affects every family or every working person in their lives.”
Eight in 10 voters (84 percent) support a comprehensive paid family and medical leave plan available to all workers, according to a recent survey of 1,004 voters from the National Partnership. But they had different ideas about who should foot the bill.
More than one-third (38 percent) of survey respondents supported a shared contribution between businesses and employees to fund paid leave. Another 21 percent said companies should shoulder the full cost. Nearly one-fifth (19 percent) of respondents preferred federal funding for paid leave benefits, even if it meant a tax increase, while 3 percent said workers should be able to draw early from Social Security and 2 percent supported employees picking up the tab.
“Family leave may not be seen a dominant issue in this election cycle but it certainly is very salient to the substantial number of voters that struggle with providing care to family members,” said Chris Borick, a professor of political science at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. “Even if family leave is not at the top of most voters list of the key issues, its high level of importance to a fairly sizeable cohort within the American electorate explains why you see so much attention being provided to the issue by candidates across partisan divides.”
The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 gives employees with at least 12 months of service up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year. That time off can be used for a new child, or an employee or their family member’s serious health condition. It doesn’t apply to part-time workers and independent contractors.
A total of 86 percent of Democrats, 66 percent of Independents, and 58 percent of Republicans responding to the National Partnership poll say they’re more likely to vote for a candidate who publicly supports paid family and medical leave. Majorities of Democrats (77 percent), Independents (60 percent), and Republicans (52 percent) said they’re less likely to vote for a candidate who publicly opposes a national paid family and medical leave policy.
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have called for a national plan for paid leave, but a long-term, bipartisan solution has so far eluded them. The wide variety of proposals often break down along party lines.
Fischer’s provision has been touted as getting the ball rolling on a permanent solution. She’s seeking a second term this November, hoping to defeat Democratic challenger Jane Raybould, a Lincoln City Council member and grocery store owner. Fischer leads in the race that the nonpartisan Cook Political Report predicts to be “likely Republican.”
Both candidates have voiced support for paid family leave measures. Nebraska law doesn’t currently provide for the benefit.
Gillibrand’s FAMILY Act (S.337, H.R. 947) would create a family and medical leave insurance program funded by payroll taxes on workers and employers. The measure, which is co-sponsored by 33 Democratic caucus members, has stalled in committee.
Gillibrand is running against Republican Chele Farley in a race Cook’s predicts to be “solid Democratic.” New York has a paid family leave law, but no provision for paid sick leave.
Gillibrand’s position on paid leave will be drowned out by other issues, said Hofstra’s Levy. Still, the issue could help Gillibrand if she runs for president in 2020 because it resonates with voters in swing areas like suburbs that supported Trump in 2016.
“Paid family leave is not going to get someone to the polls,” Levy said about November’s election. “With Gillibrand, it will not be a close race, but it’s about building a resume as a serious public policy person and also about bringing together the wings of her party.”
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