The Anti-Trump Wave May Position Hawaii to Lead Way on Work-Family Policies

Last year Hawaii passed Kupuna Care. Now, legislators look to paid family leave.

Happy family on a beach in Hawaii.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

HONOLULU, Hawaii—In 2017, Hawaii celebrated the passage of the Kupuna (Elder) Care Act—a groundbreaking law in a legislative session that otherwise left many advocates disappointed. Yet Hawaii’s response to President Trump and his policies has turbo-charged the hopes of those working on a pro–working family agenda. Now, Hawaii legislators have their eyes set on paid family leave for all workers.

Since Trump’s inauguration, Hawaii has made #Resistance news. The worldwide Women’s March that took place just one year ago was sparked by a Facebook post penned by Maui resident Teresa Shook and Hawaii’s attorney general has repeatedly challenged Trump’s Muslim ban.

Hawaii also made national headlines when state Rep. Beth Fukumoto left the GOP following censure by her party for her critiques of Trump. Four years ago, she gained attention as one of nine young women remaking the right. Now Fukumoto is considering a run for U.S. Congress as a Democrat.

And last summer, Hawaii passed a bill for families faced with the growing demands of elder care. The Kupuna Care Act provides up to $70 per day for Hawaiians to pay for care for elders at home so they can stay in the workforce.

Hawaii’s Working Family Coalition is hoping to build on this energy. On Thursday, diverse family, women’s, and worker advocates will be briefing Hawaii lawmakers about new research on the feasibility of bringing paid leave to Hawaii workers. A new Institute for Women’s Policy Research cost/benefit analysis shows Hawaii’s options for administering a program to provide paid time off for workers to care for newborns, for themselves, or for a family member with a serious health condition.

The U.S. is the only industrialized country in the world that offers workers no guaranteed paid leave. Five states and D.C. now have some paid leave program on the books. Hawaii is looking to join them in the next year.

Hawaii state Sen. Jill Tokuda, who supports paid family leave and who brought her newborn to work at the state Legislature on a daily basis in 2010, believes that Trump’s policies may accelerate positive change in Hawaii, since there has been a “groundswell of advocacy and activism” since his election.

She recognizes, however, that this progressive spirit has not always translated into fast change. “[Hawaii] has been so progressive, yet also slow to change,” Tokuda said.

Rep. Fukumoto agreed: “There’s a heightened awareness that the rights and benefits that we have taken for granted can be taken away. At the same time, we still have so far to go for workers and families.” Fukumoto supports comprehensive paid leave that provides benefits for a range of caregiving situations, noting that while some millennials are waiting to have children, others are scrambling to care for them now, and many are also facing the challenges of caring for kupuna. If she runs for Congress, paid family leave will be included in her platform.

Both Fukumoto and Tokuda were encouraged by the results of a U.S. Department of Labor–funded study, which analyzed four different models for providing leave for caregiving and medical needs. The most far-reaching model would cost from $30–$60 per average employee per year, and would pay for both employee compensation and $1.7 million in administrative costs. This option would provide 16 weeks of paid leave, with compensation ranging from 50 percent of earnings for higher-wage workers to 90 percent of earnings for minimum-wage employees.

Given this data, Fukumoto thought a paid leave bill would be much easier to pass this year, though the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce would still likely oppose the bill if employers are required to contribute—whatever the amount. However, she said, “I don’t know if they would fight very hard.”

Fukumoto suggested that the state of Hawaii look into funding the program in its entirety so no employer or employee contribution would be necessary.

Tokuda noted that national attention on the elder care legislation, the first of its kind in the country, and the high demand for benefits by Hawaii residents, will help support increased funding for the program in the next legislative session.

Tokuda says, “This could be the year we match data with policy. But we need to muster the political will to do the right thing.” She added that Hawaii residents continue to ask how “government is going to ease my burden. All of us are realizing that there’s so much more that we could lose.”

Deborah Zysman, Hawaii Children’s Action Network executive director and a leader of the Working Families Coalition, is confident about what the study on paid leave feasibility shows:

When our legislators review the data and see that our state can cost-effectively provide a much-needed lifeline, they will act. Lawmakers understand that working families in Hawaii are struggling to care for their loved ones—while managing low wages in a state with one of the highest costs of living in the nation. Though it took two decades for Kupuna Care to become reality, the path to making Family Leave Insurance happen can be much shorter.

With diverse Hawaii legislators increasingly on board with data-driven, safety net policies, the anti-Trump wave could well set in place a progressive family agenda for a long time to come. 2018 will show just how many other lawmakers in the Aloha State are of like mind.