Democratic Presidential Candidates Spar Over Paid Family Leave Policies

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Democratic Presidential Candidates Spar Over Paid Family Leave Policies

Ally Boguhn

At Saturday’s Democratic debate, paid family leave was once again a hot topic for the presidential candidates, who roundly agree such policies are important despite disagreeing on how to implement them.

Paid family leave was once again a hot topic for the 2016 presidential candidates during last Saturday’s Democratic debate in Des Moines, Iowa, as candidates roundly agreed such policies are important despite disagreeing on how to implement them.

When asked by CBS moderator Nancy Cordes how she would propose paying for paid family leave and other programs candidates have supported, such as debt-free college, Hillary Clinton quipped that the financial burden should not be on the middle class. “I have made very clear that hardworking middle-class families need a raise, not a tax increase,” Clinton said.

Clinton may have been referring to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) vocal support for the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, which the candidate co-sponsored in March with Sen. Kristin Gillibrand (D-NY). The legislation would mandate guaranteed paid family leave for up to 12 weeks to care for a new child or a sick family member. A payroll tax increase of $1.39 per week, or $72 a year, would be used to pay for the program. 

Sanders in June released his Family Values Agenda, a package of legislation outlining how the presidential candidate would provide people with paid family, vacation, and sick leave. Gillibrand’s FAMILY Act was a key component of Sanders’ agenda, which noted that “Workers in the United States should have at least 12 weeks of universal paid family and medical leave. The FAMILY Act introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand does just that.”

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Sanders’ agenda also asserted his support for the Healthy Families Act, introduced in March by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and co-sponsored by Sanders, which would guarantee workers at least seven days of paid sick leave per year should they need it.

Sanders again highlighted his support for these policies during Saturday’s debate, noting that the United States is one of few countries “that doesn’t guarantee paid family and medical leave. That’s not the America that I think we should be.”

Speaking to the Des Moines Register after the debate, Sanders questioned why Clinton had yet to release the details of her own platform on the issue: “What is her program? What does she intend to do other than talk about it?” said Sanders. “If she thinks $1.38 a week is just too much to spend, let her explain that.”

A Clinton aide responded saying that “Hillary Clinton already said she supports 12 weeks of paid family leave, but she supports a different way to pay for it and so will be outlining additional ideas for ensuring the wealthiest Americans pay their fair share,” reported CNN.

For her part, Clinton has voiced her support for paid family leave in the past, despite not backing Gillibrand’s proposed Senate measure. In a May campaign video released in honor of Mother’s Day, Clinton outlined her commitment to offering paid family leave by highlighting how the women in her family, including her own mother and daughter, had helped shape her position on the issue.

“At a time that should be so exciting and joyful, I see so many women who are just distraught. They have to immediately go back to work. They don’t know how they’re going to manage,” said Clinton in the ad. “It’s outrageous that America is the only country in the developed world that doesn’t guarantee paid leave.”

When CNN moderator Dana Bash asked Clinton to respond to respond to Carly Fiorina’s opposition to federal paid family leave policies during the first Democratic debate, she criticized the Republican presidential candidate. “I’m surprised she says that because California has had a paid leave program for a number of years, and it has not had the ill effects that the Republicans are always saying it will have,” Clinton said of Fiorina. “We can design a system and pay for it that does not put the burden on small business.”

Clinton didn’t outline the details of her own platform at either debate. When responding to Bash, she instead shifted the conversation to address GOP’s attacks on reproductive health. “It’s always the Republicans or their sympathizers who say you can’t have paid leave, you can’t provide health care,” Clinton said at the CNN debate. “They don’t mind having big government interfere with a woman’s right to choose and taking down Planned Parenthood. They’re fine with big government when it comes to that. I’m sick of that. We can do these things.”

Yet just last year in a 2014 town hall gathering promoting her book Hard Choices, Clinton didn’t seem as sold on the prospect of government-mandated paid family leave. “I think, eventually, it should be [implemented],” Clinton said before noting that she didn’t believe such a move was currently a possibility.“I don’t think, politically, we could get it now,” she continued.

In contrast to Clinton, candidate and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who had asserted his support for a federal paid family leave policy during the first presidential debate, had also earlier explained his own position in a September column for the Gazette in Cedar Rapids, where he pointed to the FAMILY Act co-sponsored by Sanders as a “solution” for federal paid family leave. “Only 12 percent of American workers have access to paid leave, and 40 percent can lose their jobs for taking even unpaid leave to care for a newborn child,” wrote O’Malley. “All parents — both men and women, gay or straight, married or single — should be able to take at least 12 weeks of leave, with pay, in order to care for newborn children or other loved ones. And no family — especially low- and middle-income families — should have to pay more than 10 percent of their income on safe, affordable child care in a given year.”

The current law of the land, the Family Leave and Medical Act (FMLA), was signed into law in 1993 by then-President Bill Clinton and guarantees workers in the United States up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off to care for a new child or a sick relative, but many believe the measure doesn’t go far enough. Only about 40 percent of workers are not eligible to take advantage of the law in the first place.

Thus far, just three statesCalifornia, New Jersey, and Rhode Island have made up the difference through laws providing at least partial mandated paid benefits. 

Analyses show that paid family leave provides major benefits to businesses and workers. A 2014 evaluation of California’s policy by the U.S. Department of Labor found that in the ten years since the law was implemented, new mothers increased their leave by about three weeks. The policy also led to positive gains in women’s employment and wages, and more time for parents to devote to child care and breastfeeding. Roughly 90 percent of employers also reported “positive effects or no effects in terms of productivity, profitably, retention, and morale,” according to the analysis.  

As Sanders and Clinton both pointed out on the campaign trail, the United States does lag far behind the rest of the developed world when it comes to paid family leave policies—it is the only country in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that doesn’t offer paid maternity leave, and is one of just nine countries that doesn’t have paid paternity leave.