Here’s One Progressive Cause That Might Not Wither In The Trump Era

WASHINGTON ― President-elect Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and the sudden real possibility of a registry for Muslims scares Jacob Feinspan. He’s executive director of Jews United for Justice, a local advocacy group. Jewish people have seen this before, he said at an event here earlier this week. He didn’t need to explain further.

Yet for all the uncertainty and fear Trump is bringing to town, Feinspan was feeling kind of upbeat. With pushing from his group, part of the DC Paid Family Leave Coalition, the District is poised to pass one of the most generous paid leave laws in the country.

The measure would give desperately needed paid time off to new parents and those who need to care for sick relatives ― and it stands to benefit the city’s lowest-income workers more than any other group.

“It feels like everything is at risk and the sky is falling,” Feinspan said at an event where advocates for paid parental and sick leave gathered. “But we have huge opportunities to do something game changing.”

At a time when so many progressive causes ― climate change, LGBTQ rights, civil rights, abortion rights ― seem at risk, paid parental leave and its sibling benefit, the even more popular paid sick leave, are turning out to be somewhat bright spots in the new Trump era.

In 2016 alone, 14 states, cities and counties passed paid sick leave laws that allow workers to take time off when they’re ill and still get paid. Many of those laws include paid time off for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault to access services related to their abuse, a benefit dubbed “paid safe leave.”

Also this year, New York state passed a generous measure that gives 12 weeks off, partially paid, to new parents or workers who need to care for ill family members. And San Francisco passed the first fully paid parental leave measure in the country.

The U.S. is the only advanced economy that doesn’t guarantee any paid sick or maternity leave to workers. That’s been devastating. While about 60 percent of workers in the private sector get paid sick leave, only 39 percent at the bottom quarter of the income scale have access to leave, according to data from the Labor Department.

The numbers on paid parental leave are worse. Just 12 percent of private sector workers get paid parental leave. The U.S. does have a law, the Family Medical Leave Act, that guarantees 12 unpaid weeks off to new parents. But because it’s limited to larger companies it leaves out 40 percent of the workforce.

One-quarter of mothers are back to work less than two weeks after having a baby, according to one study. At a time when 40 percent of families rely on a female breadwinner and in many more households both parents work, the lack of a policy has terrible economic consequences for families and children.

And while a growing number of companies now realize paid leave is good policy ― many increased the amount offered to employees over the past few years ― these companies typically employ well-paid white collar workers.

That’s where the leave laws come in. Typically funded by a small payroll tax, paid leave laws spread the cost of leave out and let more diverse workers reap the benefits.

These local laws are huge wins for working people ― and they’re far more popular than, say, this year’s crop of presidential candidates.

In Arizona on Election Day, a paid sick leave and minimum wage increase ballot measure got 165,000 more votes than Donald Trump and a quarter-million more votes than Hillary Clinton. (The state went for Trump.)

National polls show that an overwhelming majority of Americans support paid leave. Even conservative intellectuals, who have long argued against paid leave for various reasons ― it’s bad for business, people shouldn’t have kids if they can’t afford it, and so on ― are coming around.

Donald Trump, with prodding from his daughter Ivanka, floated a maternity leave proposal during the runup to the election. A sure sign of the issue’s growing popularity. Unfortunately, Trump’s idea falls far short of acceptable, offering just six weeks paid time off and only providing it to married women who give birth.  

Trump’s proposal offers “too little to too few people and pits people against each other,” Ellen Bravo said. Bravo is the director of Family Values @ Work, a nonprofit coalition of groups pushing for paid parental and sick leave in the U.S., which hosted the event this week.

Giving leave only to women puts them at a clear disadvantage in the workplace where an employer might go with a male candidate knowing he wouldn’t get any paid time off. It also entirely leaves out gay dads. Advocates also don’t like Trump’s idea to fund maternity leave by using money set aside for unemployment insurance.

“Babies don’t just have mothers and biological parents, and it’s not just newborns that need care,” Bravo said. “We are concerned about an approach that would leave out so many; and also the particulars of his proposal would shift money others need for unemployment. That money is already too scarce.”

Bravo and other family leave supporters here made clear that they’d fight against Trump’s proposal as it currently stands.

The D.C. measure is far more palatable, offering 11 weeks paid time off to new parents (regardless of gender, including adoptive parents) and providing workers with eight weeks off to look after sick family members. It’s funded through a payroll tax paid solely by employers, and it’s most generous to those making the least money. Those earning up to $45,000 a year get 90 percent of their pay. Above that, employees get 50 percent replacement up to a maximum of $1,000 a week.

The city council is set for a preliminary vote on Tuesday and a final vote is scheduled for just before Christmas. The measure is expected to ultimately pass.

New York’s similarly generous law goes into effect in 2018. California and New Jersey have laws that provide six weeks off and are funded through payroll taxes paid by workers and employers. These states offer lower pay reimbursement than the D.C. proposal.

More states and cities are looking to pass measures, too.

It’s important to note that a lot of the momentum on leave came from the Obama administration. The Department of Labor funded small grants to states so they could study paid leave, for example. That’s all going away. 

Still, the public demand for change isn’t.

“Our work continues,”  Bravo said.

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