Why Paid Family Leave Might Finally Happen

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S1: When I was born, my 23 year old mother took four weeks of short term disability leave from the small town newspaper where she worked in order to spend time recovering from childbirth and to care for me. She had to go back to work when I was so small, I couldn’t support my own head with my underdeveloped baby neck muscles. If my mother had wanted to spend more time taking care of her infant instead of crying postpartum tears at her desk, her only other option was to quit the workforce. It’s what a lot of women did in the intervening years. We’ve had seven presidents, 11 Fast and Furious movies and two whole waves of feminism. But we as a country still haven’t made much progress on paid family leave. Just ask anybody who recently had a baby like Jasmine Graham of Washington, D.C. Jasmine didn’t get paid leave when her son was born at the very end of 2019 because the restaurant where she worked as a server didn’t provide it.

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S2: When I was like, so do you guys offer any pay leave or any programs, Jacobean, so that I can still be able to support myself while I can’t work? And they said, unfortunately, they only offer it to employees that have been with the company for more than two, three years. And I had only been with the company for about a year, which was absurd, but. You know, it is it is what it is.

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S1: Jasmine faced the predicament that parents and caretakers across the U.S. have faced for generations when they need it the most. The social safety net just kind of left them without any workable options. Some workers are guaranteed up to 12 weeks unpaid leave. But not everyone can afford to do that. Rapidly rising costs of living and wage increases that barely keep up with inflation means that having a baby in this country is more financially daunting than it’s ever been.

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S2: Like, how am I going to get prepared for my baby’s arrival if I don’t have any money or any source of income coming in? So I got really stressed out, depressed like I was I was really going through it when, you know, during my whole process of being pregnant and not being able to have paid leave. It was really a stress.

S1: Then Covid made things even more complicated. Just as Jasmine was returning to work, the pandemic shut everything down. Jasmine, like many mothers and caretakers out there, was already stretched to her limit and Covid just made a bad situation worse.

S2: I feel like I just became so overwhelmed and stressed out because it was like, oh, my God, like, you know, you know, it almost made you feel like, oh, my God, like there are shoes at the wrong time to have a baby. When am I going to do.

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S1: The COVID 19 pandemic has shown us that people who we depend on to keep this country from falling apart with little to no formal support, mother’s caretakers, home health aides, child care workers, essential workers and service workers like Jasmine are on the verge of falling apart themselves. It’s completely unsustainable and it’s no longer a problem that can be kicked down the road, pushed to their limit. Hundreds of thousands of women left the workforce in 2020 without big changes. Will they ever be able to return? The U.S. is the only rich, industrialized nation without a universal paid family leave policy. But right now, it looks like we’re closer than we’ve ever been to ending that embarrassing legacy. Thanks in part to the way that the Covid pandemic exposed our system’s flaws. Today on the show, are we living through the final days of the industrialized world’s most arcane family leave policy? I’m Erin Ryan Infirmary Harris. And this is what next? Stick around. For much of the past year, Chabeli Carrazana has been chasing down the myriad economic situations families and in particular women have been finding themselves in. That’s her job. She reports on the economy for the 19th. And it’s what happened this past year. Chabeli says that has raised the profile of policies like paid family leave.

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S3: You know, we were at a point right before the pandemic, if you can even possibly think back to December twenty nineteen when women were more than half of the labor force, fifty point zero four percent, tiny number. But they were more than half that had only happened two times in history. So we were this really great point for women in the labor force. And then when the pandemic happened, we had so many of these jobs that women were in hospitality, jobs, customer facing jobs that disappeared. And then we had all these other women who were at home with their kids trying to manage. Child care without child care options, school without in-person school who were dropping out of the labor force in astronomical numbers at one point in April of twenty twenty. Half of all moms, nearly half were out of the labor force. And so when that happened, there was this huge focus on why there was no support for these women to remain employed. And that’s what we talk about as the women’s recession or the recession. And so this she’s session was, I think, a big catalyst for talking about many of these issues, particularly Paid leave child care, the child tax credit. I mean, part of the reason that Paid leave is being discussed now is that it’s grouped into this group of policies that we felt or at least a lot of advocates felt should have been in place before. But now, when we didn’t have them, we really felt what that look like. And we saw very viscerally in our homes, in our offices, in our living rooms what that looked like, the fact that we didn’t have it.

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S1: Yeah. And, you know, right now we’re in a situation where it seems like a lot of these issues are coming to a head. Can you walk us through the history of Paid leave like the U.S. is one of only two countries in the world that does not have any guaranteed paid family leave? Yeah, along with Papua New Guinea, which is a jeopardy answer if anybody wants some trivia. The only one I would get, right? Yeah. Yeah. Right. So, you know, we’re one of only two countries in the world that doesn’t guarantee paid family leave, but we do have a social safety net. Can you walk us through the history of how we got a social safety net, but never, ever bothered to to patch the hole in the safety net that is supposed to provide for people who need to care for sick relatives?

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S3: Yeah, so we have a family, the Family Medical Leave Act, and that we passed in 93, and that was really unpaid leave getting there took years of advocacy to even secure. Yes, you can take 12 weeks maximum of unpaid leave from your job and still retain that job. It’s often what a lot of folks take from the birth of a child when they have to care for somebody, that’s really where they go. And so we as a country have just been completely immobile on this subject for a really, really long time, even as other countries have gone and expanded their paid leave policies. You know, Norway has been offering paid leave to fathers for 30 years. You know, Sweden has offered it for forty seven years. The United Kingdom recently in 2015, enhance their policy so that parents can take up to thirty seven fully paid weeks between, you know, both parents. So we just have not moved on it for a really long time. That is just it’s made this topic one that really wasn’t getting a lot of traction. And then in the past few years, it started to shift a little bit. We had President Trump mentioned Paid leave, and I think several of his State of the Union addresses, Ivanka Trump was big on paid leave. We had several Republicans come out in support of paid leave. And then in this administration, we have now a president who understands paid leave from a personal perspective when, you know, he lost his wife in his thirties and had to to care for his two young sons and sort of paid leave was a big thing for him. And so we’ve seen this gradual shift in the past few years where paid leave has risen to be a major topic, where now we are discussing a potential policy, a potentially universal policy, a federal policy, and not just we’re discussing it, but it has a pathway to passage.

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S1: Mm hmm. Can you talk a little bit more about what that federal paid leave policy that is currently being considered looks like, and where is it as it moves through the sort of peristalsis of the legislative body?

S3: Yeah. So what’s been proposed by the Biden administration and this is a proposal that could change. But what he proposed was two hundred and twenty five billion dollar universal paid leave policy, and that would phase in over a decade until it hits 12 weeks in the twenty thirties. And this was his proposal. It’s changed a little bit since then, but initially that’s what it was. And it would replace at least two thirds of hourly wages, up to four thousand dollars a month. So it’s not fully paid at most. You’re going to get those four thousand dollars a month and leave reimbursements. And then the lowest wage workers would have 80 percent of their full wages paid back. So it’s a starting point. That’s at least how many advocates have talked about it in the conversations since this was announced a few months ago. There’s been a lot of conversation about do we phase this in over 10 months? Can we bring that number down? I think at this point they’re thinking it’s going to be less than 10 years. I know a lot of advocates are not happy with. A 10 year faizan. And so now we have this potential reconciliation package, which is a package that Democrats are trying to pass through Congress without needing any Republican votes to pass it. That is being written at this point, and it’s very likely it’s going to have this of some version of this Paid leave proposal that Biden put forth.

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S1: So some of the pushback I’ve seen, if any pushback, because I don’t think very many people are brave enough to come out and say publicly, I think this is a bad idea. But nevertheless, there are definitely people who are pushing against it. So how do we pay for it?

S3: Yeah, that’s the big question, right? Two hundred and twenty five billion dollars over the next decade. And that’s if we phased in over 10 years, which I don’t think is going to get support from a lot of Democrats. You know, what we’ve seen in some other states with some other states have done is they’ll have sort of the employer pay into a fund like a pot of money that is used for paid leave, and then the state will also have its own funds. So it’s like a two, two way sort of situation where, you know, for every 40 hours that you work, you get an hour of paid leave and that starts to accumulate over time. I think Washington has a system like that. So there’s different ways to do it. I mean, I think the big question that we have with this Biden plan and this reconciliation package is just we don’t quite know how they’re going to structure it. We’ve gotten very broad strokes. We have kind of the general idea, kind of the timeline, the amount. But paying for it is the question. And so, you know, there’s Republicans that want to see this as a tax credit in a completely different structure versus having it as this kind of large federal payment that we cover.

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S1: At the same time that more of Congress is getting on board. Chabeli says movers and shakers in the business community are also wising up to the benefits of paid family leave.

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S3: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the largest business group in this country, is in support of federal paid leave. They just they quibble with some of the details of it. They want to see it with a preemption that basically the federal law will preempt all of the state laws or the local laws. And the reason behind that is it’s a little bit more seamless for businesses to operate across state lines if they’re not having to deal with while Washington has it this way and Oregon has it this way. So they want to see that the Biden plan doesn’t have that preemption. But the reality is they’re at the table talking about it. I mean, they a federal policy and a lot of small businesses will tell you a federal policy would actually be beneficial because we don’t have to take on the full cost. Right. We’re going to get this aid from the federal government to make this happen. And in that case, then it becomes a lot more reasonable to be able to do it, implement it. So that’s that’s where, you know, even if there is pushback, I think there’s a lot of openness to discussing, OK, how are we going to pay for this? How are we going to structure it?

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S1: So the Chamber of Commerce is in favor of a federal paid leave program with, you know, details being quibbled over who are the people who are the forces fighting against this? Like is this like some kind of dark money stuff? Is this people kind of quietly fighting against it? Who can we kind of drag them out into the light here?

S3: So in terms of opponents, we have the National Federation of Independent Businesses has been a vocal opponent. They represent small businesses. They are particularly opposed to kind of like a one size fits all mandate, like a federal mandate, versus just encouraging firms to do what works for their staff. So that’s kind of one of the big ones. The airline industry has also really come out against a lot of local and statewide paid leave policies because they argue it complicates their operations for staff that operates across state lines. Again, that same issue with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. So there we know that their trade group has been really, really involved in lawsuits against Massachusetts and Washington, saying they’re paid leave policies, go against federal regulations that apply to the industry. So we’ve definitely seen that the airline industry be pretty active at the state level. But those are the big ones. There’s not a ton. There’s not a ton. And like I said, I think a lot of folks would like to see something where they get some help either from a state or from a local municipality or from the federal government to make this happen, because they see the value in, hey, we can retain our employees, we can make sure they don’t come to work sick. They can have some flexibility for their kids. So a lot of the businesses I’ve talked to have said, yeah, we would love to do this with with some support.

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S1: But more with Chabeli after the break. Chabeli Carrazana says one reason it’s taken so long to get even this close to a federal paid leave program, despite more than 80 percent of Americans supporting it, isn’t just business interests. It’s stigma. Paid leave has a PR problem.

S3: One one person I spoke to, she’s a line cook in Massachusetts, and she was talking about how she was part of the Paid leave push in Massachusetts years ago. But in her own job does not have paid leave and does not feel like she can bring it up to her employer. You know, she was saying, you know, I worked very hard to make sure people have access to it and that it got passed. But I still haven’t internalized guilt about using it myself. Sort of this idea that, you know, if she leaves there, they’re so strapped for for staff. If she’s out, she takes time off. You know, she’s sort of screwing over somebody else in the job or hurting her co-workers. And so it’s interesting that there’s sort of this psychological divide there between like, yes, we need it, but like, should I even be asking for it? Can I ask for it? I think it goes back to this idea that we as a nation haven’t really supported it in the past and haven’t found it to be valuable. And so I think making that shift is probably the harder part with Paid leave.

S1: Yeah, I wonder if it’s it’s because when it comes to paid, leave it from the perspective of the person being like, should I take this? Should I ask for this? It appears that there is a direct cost to the people around them. But in reality, not taking paid leave has a bigger long term cost to a lot more people. So can you talk a little bit about like what is it costing us to not have paid leave?

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S3: Yeah, I mean, it’s a huge retention issue, not having paid leave. I mean, we I’ve spoken to small businesses that I have already just independently added Paid leave as a benefit. And they say, you know, we can retain people so much more if we just give them that time to go pick up their kid from school or that, you know, day off when they’re feeling sick. So they’re not coming in to work sick. So there’s the retention piece, you know, the cost of turnover, the cost of training. And then there is this other piece, which is sort of the public health piece. And we saw that very starkly during the pandemic. There was one study done out of Cornell where they found that when you control for every other factor, states and localities that had paid leave laws saw fewer Covid cases because these low wage workers who were the ones who were most likely to continue working in these customer facing jobs, were returning to work even though they had symptoms, because they could not afford to take unpaid time off if their hours were already reduced. You know, imagine it’s just like you’re put into this impossible position. And if they’re just thankful, a lot of them would say to me, you know, I’m just thankful to have a job and to have many hours left. I don’t know. I can’t afford to lose any more. So if they were unsure what their symptoms were, if they were sick, they would go back to work. And that spread the virus. And so there’s an interconnectivity about Paid leave, which is, you know, you’re not taking it, and particularly in a global pandemic could affect all these other people.

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S1: It seems like there’s an empathy piece in the debate also. And I know, you know, empathy isn’t a very like butch word, but I’ve seen it pointed out in a bunch of places, including on the 19th news, that in the U.S. it’s illegal for breeders to separate puppies from mother dogs before they’re eight weeks old. But we have no rules in place mandating human mothers get any time to spend with their newborns at all. Yeah. No rules. Yeah. So, like, why do you think we have so little empathy for human families? Hmm.

S3: Well, that’s a big question. I mean, I think that’s at the heart of so many things, right? Like why don’t we have more empathy as a country? Why don’t we understand the situations people are in and. You know, I think it’s part of this culture of just like go, go, go, that we are so very much in, we want we so value people when they say, you know, I was able to get back to work, you know, four weeks after having my having my my child, I was I was able to get back on the saddle. You know, it’s just there’s so much of that culture where that we are working so hard now, particularly because of the pandemic, to dismantle these myths around work, culture and being on all the time and, you know, being able to do it all. The supermom idea. Right. That she you know, she can do everything all at once. And it’s like we can’t we can’t do everything all at once. It’s impossible. And we saw that fall apart. There was one mom I talked to during the pandemic who is like was like this idea of a super mom. Right. She’s like on the board of her kid’s school. She has a nonprofit. She started she is a lawyer. She started her own like she she’s done it all right. She has three kids. And she was working into the night for her first all nighter since law school. She said just to keep the wheels turning during the pandemic. And that is just not sustainable for anyone. So we we set these expectations that are not realistic. And I think Paid leave all of this is sort of part of that bigger idea of. Right, that people should just be able to do it all and have it all. And you can’t you can’t without support. And so we just haven’t given that support. And for the first time in the past year and a half, we’ve seen what it looks like in a really stark, obvious way when we don’t get that support. What that looks like. Mm hmm. Yeah.

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S1: I mean, it sort of reminds me of this kind of dark trend piece that happens where it’s like inspiring. This boy went dumpster diving to pay for his cancer treatment. And, you know, the story of a person having to resort to desperate measures like a mother staying up all night in order to do all this stuff.

S3: So it’s feels like we inspire. Yeah.

S1: Inspiring? No.

S3: Horrible? No. Why are we making people do with it?

S1: It’s like it seems like so, you know, how do we reframe the way that we how how do we reframe the way that we look at caretakers? And instead of being like, congratulations, you’re a superwoman or you know, you’re a super person, how do we reframe that and be like, wow, you are working your ass off and you’re working really hard, but you shouldn’t have to do all this work?

S3: Yeah. Yeah. No more supermoms certificate’s like no more congratulating. You know, I think so much of our work is so undervalued generally, whether it’s in a professional setting or in the home. And that is the reframing that I think has started to happen where we a recognize, hey, all of this care work that is taking place, whether it’s child care or long term care or home health care, all those cares. We’re paying that like a minimum wage. And all of those cares went away away this year. And we fell apart as an economy. We fell apart as a country because we didn’t have it. And so a. All of all of those areas need to be valued a little bit more because it is really essential to keeping the wheels turning, you know, as a society generally. And then there’s all this other care that is taking place in the home. You know, all of those moms that are doing it all up till midnight, trying to make it work. All of those parents that are caring for a parent or a sibling or somebody else, all of that care does not get acknowledged. It is not counted. It is not. There’s no data on it. And so because we don’t measure it, we don’t quantify it, we don’t pay attention to it, we don’t we don’t recognize it as labor. We don’t recognize it as work, as important, as valuable. And that’s, I think, part of our fundamental problem, right. Is what we focus on and what we don’t focus on. So I just think Kerry’s infrastructure, which we’ve heard it discussed that way a lot this year, is. Is a really crucial reframing that I think is going to take time. I think it’s going to take time for us as a country to really understand what that means. We’re starting to see it, and I think a lot of people have seen it very viscerally. But there’s a lot of pushback on that concept. A lot of pushback on that concept. A lot of people who just don’t want to see care described in that way. And so that’s kind of the big question for us moving forward, is just how can this reframing stick or is it really just fueled out of the pandemic and then it it dies.

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S1: Hmm. So as somebody who watches this issue, covers this issue, kind of lives and breathes this issue. Do you think that a federal paid family leave program is actually going to happen this time?

S3: I think it is. You do? I think it is. I say that with caution, but I think it is. You know, we’re seeing, you know, the House is moving forward on, you know, writing this reconciliation package. We know that this is one of the things that they have in it. We know that there’s Republican support for the infrastructure package. There are these two things that are moving in tandem with each other. So I always want to be cautious, but I think there is definitely a possibility. You know, we saw things pass this year that we’ve never seen, like the child tax credit. That was one that we just did not think was going to move forward for a really, really long time. And then all of a sudden it just blazed ahead, completely blazed ahead this year. And so a similar situation is happening here with Paid leave, where we have some Republican support, we have some business support. We have all these things that have been missing for a long time. And then we have the pandemic and then we have this moment where there is an opportunity to seize on it. So. Yeah, I think it could. I think it could. Mm hmm. If it does, and I don’t want my words to come back and eat me, but but but I think it could.

S1: Chabeli, thank you so much for joining me today and for all your work on this. This is such an important issue. And I hope that your couched prediction comes true. And we actually see this happen.

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S3: We’ll see. I’m curious to see how it will roll out, what it’ll look like. That’s those are the big questions for me. You know, we’re still thinking about how equitable will this be, how many people will be reached? We reached the people who really need it. Getting there is one part of the story, but the other part is really what does this look like in practice?

S1: Chabeli Carrazana reports on the economy for the 19th. And that’s the show. What next is produced by Davis Land, Elana Schwartz, Mary Wilson, Danielle, Hewitt and Carmel Delshad. Allison Benedikte is Slate’s executive editor, and Alicia Montgomery is Slate’s executive producer of podcasts and special thanks to Community Change for putting us in touch with Jasmine. I’m Erin Ryan, in for Mary Harris. Normally, I’m the host of Crooked Media Hysteria podcast, where every week we break down the news topics, trends and cultural stories that affect women’s lives. You can find that wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening.