Where Washington’s paid-leave plans fall short
The fact that even Republicans have a paid-leave plan shows that the issue is at a tipping point — but the left can’t be satisfied with that, writes a Socialist Worker contributor.
THE STATISTICS are stark.
One in four U.S. women goes back to work within two weeks of giving birth.
Only around 15 percent of U.S. workers have fully paid family leave from work, whether guaranteed by an employer or the state (seven states and Washington, D.C., have or will soon have job-protected paid leave). Most of of those with access are high-wage earners.
Only an estimated 60 percent of U.S. workers even qualify for job-protected unpaid leave under the 25-year-old Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
They dramatize the reality in the U.S., which is the only industrialized country in the world — and one of four countries at any level of development — that doesn’t guarantee paid leave for at least mothers of newborns. There have been many calls over the years for the U.S. to join the rest of the world, and even Republicans are on board.
But the Republican proposal introduced last week is a cynical ploy for family values credibility — from a party that committed the greatest heist in history with its massive tax cut for the rich and corporations, further dismantled the already paltry social safety net to pay for it and separated children from their undocumented parents at the border.
As the hope for paid family leave becomes more and more likely to become reality, it’s important for socialists to understand that these policies aren’t created equal — and intervene as they have in the Medicare for All debate to help push it to the left.
THE REPUBLICAN plan would force workers to borrow from their own Social Security, thus delaying their retirement — in a country with shockingly high rates of poverty among the elderly — in return for as little as six weeks of paid leave, and would compensate them for so little of their income that only the wealthiest families could actually live on that leave.
The proposal — the brainchild of the despicable anti-feminist Independent Women’s Forum and championed by Sen. Marco Rubio and Ivanka Trump — comes in the face of growing momentum for paid leave in the U.S.
Beyond forcing workers to pilfer their own retirement for a few weeks of low-wage time off to recover from childbirth, the plan is insulting in other respects. Experts who have evaluated thousands of medical studies across the world say a minimum of six months of paid leave is necessary for optimal maternal and infant health outcomes and for recovery from the most common serious health issues in the U.S.
Democrats and advocates in the liberal NGO and think-tank worlds have come out against the Rubio plan. It’s unclear if either his own bottom-feeding party or Donald Trump himself will back the plan, despite the fact that Ivanka Trump has made paid leave central to what she has pushed in the administration.
But it’s important to note that even the Democrats’ proposal for paid leave — Sen. Kristen Gillibrand’s union-backed FAMILY Act — would still keep the U.S. at the bottom of the rankings, with the fourth-stingiest paid leave policy in the developed world.
The program only offers up to 12 weeks of leave, half the duration recommended by experts, and it would also leave workers footing the bill for their own leave jointly with employers, though Gillibrand claims the cost would only be the equivalent of a cup of coffee per week.
A truly just paid leave plan would not be funded at all by workers themselves through their Social Security or a payroll tax, but entirely by their employers — who currently profit from the unpaid labor workers do to develop the next generation of workers, and keep themselves and their loved ones healthy across their lifetimes.
The socialist demand should be unapologetic and unwavering: Six months, universal, employer-funded paid leave for both parents when a new child is born, or to care for a loved one (not limited to biological family) or one’s self. It should be available to workers regardless of citizenship status, so undocumented workers aren’t further exploited by paying taxes into a pool they can’t access when they need it most.
BUT SIMPLY giving paid leave to workers without drastically confronting the neoliberal privatization of social reproduction won’t solve the problems most working families face today.
The socialist demand for paid leave should have other stipulations: a disability leave program giving workers who need more time for caregiving or self-care a livable income for as long as they need; affordable child care so that the return to work doesn’t plunge families into poverty; and universal health care accessible in all geographic areas of the country, so people can get and afford the health care they need while they have time off.
To nurture equitable relationships between both parents and a new baby, other nations have found it necessary not only to offer the same amount of paid leave time to men, but to incentivize them to take leave after their partners have gone back to work.
That these countries then benefit from women’s much higher rates of participation in the paid labor force is the real motivation for neoliberal states to engineer such policies, but it’s undeniable that they contribute to lower rates of poverty and increased gender equity in many spheres.
While a socialist-backed paid leave plan should be gender neutral so as not to further entrench the idea of women as sole caregivers and nurturers, it is important that we fight for paid leave as a feminist issue.
When women don’t receive adequate paid leave or can’t afford child care, they often drop out of the workforce altogether as a practical financial decision. The need for women to drop out comes not just with the birth of a child, but any time a loved one needs a dedicated caregiver.
This disruption to women’s careers and the period out of the workforce is responsible for a huge portion of the existing gender wage gap. This sets them up for serious financial precarity down the road, should they become single parents or simply when they retire and have lesser savings than men. Paid leave is key to ending women’s poverty.
Paid leave is also a racial justice issue: Unsurprisingly, the U.S. is the worst in the developed world when it comes to infant and maternal health outcomes, with death rates of infants born to Black women almost 2.5 times those born to white mothers. A universal paid leave program, but without access to health care, higher wages and improved labor standards across the board, wouldn’t fix this problem on its own.
Workers of color and especially immigrant workers are the least likely to be in jobs where they can afford time off or where their employer will be inclined to give it to them as a recruitment perk. Only a universal federal policy can meet the needs of the most exploited workers.
THAT PAID leave is even on the agenda of the two capitalist parties is the result of mounting pressure on the ruling class. The Republicans would never have released a plan for paid leave if it wasn’t clear that the Democrats are eager to do so as soon as they regain power — evidenced in part by the growing number of states passing paid leave on their own.
The fact that Democrats have started their own proposal from so far to the right and with a worker-funded mechanism to pay for it is reason for socialists to speak up about our own vision for a paid leave plan in the U.S., and to connect it to the larger struggles against exploitation and oppression.
There may be more candidates talking this fall about paid leave as a top domestic policy demand. But to make any real advances, we need to raise this issue in every arena of grassroots struggle: in immigrant rights and racial justice work, in feminist spaces and reproductive rights coalitions, and in labor struggles across industries.
It may be that U.S.’s long-overdue paid leave plan isn’t far down the road, though as it approaches the cesspool of partisan politics, the proposals have taken a hard turn to the right. We have to respond by making sure our slogans and proposals are out there, too — in the streets today and in the larger struggle for workers’ power and a world free of oppression.