Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has said US Congress is in a “unique moment” and “better poised than ever” to pass a paid family and medical leave bill that would make the benefit permanently accessible to all American workers for the first time, as she and congresswoman Rosa DeLauro reintroduced the legislation on Friday.
Currently, the US is the only industrialised nation in the world not to have a national paid family and medical leave policy.
The two Democrats first introduced the Family Act in 2013 and in every Congress since then, but it has so far failed to gain sufficient support to become law. Now, however, following the pandemic and the change of administration, they believe the momentum is finally with them and paid leave could soon become a permanent reality for American workers.
“I see this as a unique moment in time … Not only is paid leave understood, it’s something supported by the majority of Americans – Democrats and Republicans,” Gillibrand said in a video press conference.
So far the legislation, which they reintroduced on Friday, has the support of more than 230 members of Congress. It would entitle every worker, regardless of company size and including those who are self-employed or work part-time, to up to 12 weeks of partial income – including for their own health conditions, pregnancy, birth or adoption, or to care for a child, parent, or spouse.
Nearly 80% of US workers – a disproportionate share of whom are women and people of colour – do not have access to paid leave through their employer, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families (NPWF).
“This first introduction has more co-sponsors in the Senate and the House than we’ve ever had, so we are better poised than ever before to actually pass this bill,” Gillibrand said. “It’s something that Joe Biden believes in, Kamala Harris believes in, I have the support of the entire Senate leadership.”
Following the pandemic, an emergency paid leave scheme was introduced last year as part of the Cares Act. Biden has since pledged to expand and extend it as part of the $1.9tn Covid-19 relief package that is making its way through Congress.
Gillibrand said it was a good “first step”, but next they want to see paid leave become permanent. When asked about a timeline for getting it passed, the senator said: “We want to get the pandemic paid leave in this next Covid bill and then we want to get the permanent paid leave in whatever the next budget funding spending bill that exists.”
She said they are “open to every legislative avenue”, adding: “We are ready and waiting to work collaboratively with all our colleagues.”
DeLauro said they met with Biden, Harris and White House staff on Friday morning and talked about how they would get the bill passed.
“We’re going to work it out so that it happens and we’ve got the support of the administration on making sure we can get it across that finishing line,” she added.
Gillibrand said being able to address Biden and Harris directly is “exactly what is making this moment ripe for success”.
They said the pandemic – and the emergency leave – has helped the issue gain traction as more members of Congress, across the political spectrum, realise how critically it is needed.
Gillibrand said: “Getting it in the Covid relief bill, even in a pandemic form, is extremely valuable because it lays the groundwork for a permanent paid leave.”
DeLauro added: “If there’s anything that this pandemic has done is to shine a light on the inequities that are out there, making paid family leave more important than ever …
“Several years ago this was at the fringe, it was not discussed. Today, paid family and medical leave is at the centre of the discourse with every opportunity to see it become a reality.”
Joycelyn Tate, senior policy advisor at Black Women’s Roundtable, said paid leave is a critical issue for many Black women.
“Many Black women are working in these frontline jobs like home healthcare aids, grocery store workers, janitorial service workers and delivery drivers and they do not earn a single day of paid leave,” she said. “Now this forces Black women to make the agonising choice between our health and the health of our families, or our economic security if we or our family members get sick.”
Debra Ness, president of the NPWF, said “the time is now” to take action.
“The time is now to pass an inclusive paid family and medical leave policy so workers no longer have to make the impossible choice between caring for themselves or a loved one and their financial security.”