Will Congress Finally Act on Paid Leave Now That Its Own Members Need It?

Now that we’re officially in Tammy-Duckworth-baby-watch mode, we can’t help but wonder once again why becoming a parent has to be so hard for professional Americans.
Duckworth, the junior senator from Illinois, will become the first sitting senator ever to give birth while in office. She’ll continue receiving her salary while she takes time off to recover, but the rules don’t allow senators to cast votes remotely or via surrogates, so she won’t be able to stay away from work completely without leaving the other 48 Democrats in the lurch. (Elizabeth Warren volunteered by tweet to hold Duckworth’s baby while she votes, since children aren’t allowed on the Senate floor.)
This puts her in a similar boat with the vast majority of Americans—because we’re the only developed country that doesn’t mandate any paid time off for new parents, only about 14 percent of civilian workers in the United States had access to a paycheck while staying home with a new baby in 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Across the world, the systems differ but almost everybody gets some time to bond with new babies: In Croatia, new moms get 30 weeks of maternity leave at full pay plus another 26 weeks at a third of their salary. In the United Kingdom, they get 39 weeks off at just 31 percent of their salaries. In Bulgaria, moms are entitled to 58 weeks off at 78 percent of their pay. Most countries also mandate paid leave for new dads—in Portugal they can take 5 weeks at full pay, and in Japan they’re offered a full year off at 58 percent of their salary.
What’s stopping the United States from adopting a more generous paid leave policy? Could it be, in part, the demographics of legislators? According to Legistorm, the average age of senators in the 115th Congress is 63, and 78 of the 100 are men; in the House, the average age is slightly lower at 59, and 80 percent are men.
It’s not like nobody’s brought legislation to the floor—Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand have been trying since 2013 to get traction on the FAMILY Act, which would create a federal fund that would pay a portion of all workers’ wages for up to 12 weeks of leave when they have a baby, adopt, or need time for other caregiving or medical issues.
Even Donald Trump suggested during his candidacy that he’d support offering new moms six weeks of paid leave (though he didn’t mention fathers or adoptive parents), and the tax bill he signed in December does include a small and complicated tax credit for employers offering paid leave.
Private employers with lots of educated professional employees have been stepping up parental leave offerings of their own accord in recent years anyway, as they realize they can’t hold onto the best workers if they don’t make an effort to show that they value women and parents (particularly as millennials already give birth to more than 80 percent of all U.S. babies each year). Netflix offers unlimited leave for a full year after a birth or adoption for all parents, and Bank of America, Deloitte, and Ernst & Young LLP all offer 16 weeks of fully paid time off to mothers, fathers, and employees who are adopting.
Some companies are even improving their paid leave policies for hourly employees (Walmart and Starbucks have both bumped up their offerings in recent months), but the majority of American workers are still stuck with the 25-year-old Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which only guarantees unpaid time off to workers at companies with more than 50 employees.
So far only California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and New York have laws on the books creating state funds that are used to pay employees during mandated leave periods. The stale argument that paid leave is bad for business has not proved true in the states where it’s actually working: In California—where paid leave went into effect in 2004—87 percent of employers surveyed said the program there had not resulted in higher costs for them.
Tammy Duckworth has been an outspoken supporter of paid leave—she introduced the Military Parental Leave Modernization Act in the House in 2016—so we can only hope that as she exposes her colleagues on Capitol Hill to an up-close look at how a working mom actively parents a newborn, they’ll recognize the urgency of the situation.