Democrats will likely make serious cuts to their proposal to offer paid leave to workers as they try to trim the cost of their Build Back Better budget bill.
The White House told House lawmakers this week that the proposed 12-week paid leave program outlined in President Joe Biden’s agenda and the House’s Build Back Better Act will likely need to be cut to just four weeks.
Meanwhile, advocates fear the entire program is still at risk of being left out of the final budget package altogether.
“It’s still under threat entirely,” said Dawn Huckelbridge, the director of grassroots issues campaign Paid Leave For All, “which is hard to imagine that in an ongoing pandemic, a caregiving crisis and women’s jobs crisis, that it would even be a question that paid leave is in this package.”
The United States is an outlier in the industrialized world in not mandating some kind of paid leave and instead relying on the voluntary actions of individual companies and states to support workers who take leave from their jobs.
Congress implemented a short-lived federal paid leave mandate during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, followed by some financial incentives to companies that voluntarily offered time off to sick workers. Paid leave was proven to be an effective way to tamp down on the spread of COVID-19.
After failing to include paid leave in the American Rescue Plan, the multi-trillion COVID-19 relief bill passed last March, Democrats vowed to include a national paid leave program in their reconciliation bill.
But as Democrats struggle to reconcile the spending concerns of the two most conservative members of the caucus, Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), with Biden’s ambitious agenda, they are already bracing to make cuts to the paid leave program. Manchin and Sinema, as well as conservative Democrats in the House, have been adamant that Democrats must reduce overall spending on Biden’s agenda.
Manchin has refused to comment on his position on paid leave, saying only that “we’re doing a lot of negotiations right now.”
All 50 Democrats need to sign on to this budget bill to pass it. Biden initially proposed a $3.5 trillion legislative package to address urgent climate policies and expand the social safety net. But Democrats are now looking at a $1.5 trillion to $2.5 trillion total investment — though that top-line number has not been decided.
There’s an acceptance among many Democrats, including those close to the paid leave policy, that there will be cuts.
Biden initially called on Congress to pass an increasingly generous national paid leave program with partial wage replacement that would phase in 12 weeks of paid leave over the course of 10 years. The House, led by Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), put together a roughly $500 billion private-public proposal to provide 12 weeks of paid leave for Americans to care for a new child or sick loved one, or to deal with a family death or the deployment of a military spouse.
What’s now being proposed is a roughly $100 billion temporary plan that would afford workers roughly four weeks of paid leave — a serious departure from the three-month standard championed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) for close to a decade. The Senate has yet to propose its version of a paid leave plan, though advocates plugged into the fight on Capitol Hill expect it to look very different than the House’s proposal.
Gillibrand told HuffPost her main priority is making sure paid leave remains in the final bill.
“The details of how long it’s covered and how supportive the benefit is in the first few years is not the most important thing; the most important thing is that that support is there for workers,” Gillibrand said. “Whether it’s X number of weeks or Y number weeks, that’s less important than creating the support that’s needed because we can build on that over time.”
But four weeks is unacceptable to some lawmakers, like DeLauro, a longtime champion for a paid leave program, and to other progressive lawmakers in the House.
“[Four weeks], makes no sense to anyone who has been pregnant or knows someone who has been pregnant,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said. But Khanna even acknowledged: “We have to lower the price tag, and there’s so many priorities.”
Igor Bobic contributed reporting.