After much back-and-forth, House Democrats decided to include a scaled-back version of a family and medical leave plan in their nearly $2 trillion version of the Build Back Better social spending bill. The measure would give families up to four weeks of leave a year to care for relatives who are ill, including those who need long-term personal assistance.
The plan, cut back from 12 weeks, is complex. But it generally makes paid leave available to family members caring for parents, grandparents, spouses, and siblings. People would be required to work for a minimal number of hours to be eligible. The amount of compensation would gradually phase-out as the worker’s pay increases. It would start at about 90 percent of the first $290 in average weekly earnings, gradually falling to about half of weekly earnings of $1,200.
A recent study by the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers shows why leave is so important. It finds that one in five full-time workers cares for a family member with a serious illness or disability. Nearly 20 percent of them said they had to quit a job to care for a relative and 40 percent said they had to go to part-time work.
Three-quarters said they have had to leave work early to care for a loved one, 70 percent took time off and 60 percent had to take two or more days off.
Nearly every major developed country in the world has paid leave. So do several states in the US and a growing number of major employers. The problem: Some of these leave programs apply to parents of infants and adoptees but not people caring for elderly parents or relatives with disabilities.
A bipartisan bill?
While the House bill would close this gap, it may not survive for long. Sen Joe Manchin (D-WV), who has been a key swing vote for the entire Build Back Better plan, opposes including family leave in the measure. Manchin, who initially expressed opposition to the leave plan on its merits, has backed off much of that criticism—at least publicly. Instead, he says he’d rather see Congress pass family and medical leave as a separate bipartisan bill.
This is a pipe dream. The problem, of course, is there is no indication that Republicans would be willing to vote for any version of leave proposed by Democrats. It is not that 10 Republicans (what it would take to get to the needed 60 votes in the Senate) do not support leave. I suspect at least that many like the idea. But Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is unlikely to ever allow a vote on family leave, at least during President Biden’s tenure.
With Democrats reeling from a bad election this week, and with Biden’s poll numbers falling, McConnell will be even less likely to throw the president a political lifeline and give him a win on a highly popular issue. Thus, Manchin’s strategy is doomed to fail. Just as his similar idea of a bipartisan voting right bill is dead.
Out in the cold
Where does that leave family and medical leave?
Sadly, out in the cold. Unless Manchin can be persuaded to change his mind, which is unlikely, there is little chance Congress will return to this issue until after the 2024 presidential elections. And the US will have missed yet another opportunity to adopt an important support for working people who struggle to hold down a job and care for relatives who are aging or living with a disability.