With Congress divided, Democrat-led states may take the lead in expanding paid family and sick leave


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Originally published by The 19th.

The United States started 2023 as, yet again, one of the few wealthy nations without any national paid family leave or paid sick leave program. And with Congress divided, advocates are turning to the states to bolster benefits for workers and families — pointing to the nationwide rollback of abortion access and a “tripledemic” of COVID-19, RSV and seasonal flu that swept the nation as proof of the urgency of these measures.

Congressional Democrats’ attempt to pass four weeks of federal paid family leave in 2021 fell apart in the U.S. Senate, leaving a patchwork of rules for workers and businesses to navigate. Almost all the states that have passed paid family leave, paid sick leave or both are led by Democrats — and Democrats’ gains at the state level in the 2022 midterms are fueling advocates’ hopes of getting more laws passed this year.

The state-by-state nature of these rules means millions of American workers have no paid family or sick leave. Lack of access to paid leave disproportionately impacts workers of color and especially women of color, who already face the starkest pay gaps in comparison to white workers. Research conducted by the National Partnership for Women and Families in collaboration with civil rights groups has found that over half of Latinx workers and over a third of Black workers reported having access to zero paid sick days per year.  None of the states that banned or heavily restricted abortion after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade have passed paid family leave programs.

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“While some of our elected officials don’t seem to see the urgency of work-family support like paid medical and family leave, paid sick leave and child care, families are still really feeling these pressures and making those demands,” Sharita Gruberg, vice president for economic justice at the National Partnership for Women and Families, told The 19th.

As of 2023, 13 states and the District of Columbia have passed paid family leave programs, and 14 states and D.C. have enacted paid sick leave programs. But an estimated 28 million American workers still have no guaranteed paid sick time, according to research from the National Partnership for Women and Families.

Jessica Ramey Stender, policy director and legal director for Equal Rights Advocates, attributes the gaps in federal law to lawmakers not prioritizing families, especially women, who are more likely to be primary caregivers.

“The fact that Congress has ignored paid sick leave and paid family leave harms all working families. But it really has a disproportionate impact on women because women are still often the ones in a family who take time off to care for a sick family member or a loved one,” Stender told The 19th.

Rep. Haley Stevens of Michigan, a Democrat, is a member of a bipartisan task force in the House of Representatives working to pass a federal paid family leave program after numerous “stops and starts” on the issue under multiple administrations. Stevens said she’s “optimistic” that the group can accomplish progress on paid family leave and “make a difference.”

“We are going to take a deep dive and really sit down with a lot of the stakeholder groups,” Stevens told The 19th. “Folks recognize that using accrued vacation or sick leave in instances where that isn’t available is just not cutting it, and we have people being left out of the workplace.”

But advocates and policymakers aren’t waiting on Congress. Democratic state legislatures have for years led the charge on paid leave, workplace anti-discrimination protections and pay equity laws, with Delaware and Maryland becoming the latest states to pass paid family leave in 2022.

“They did it because they saw that people in their state needed it and really pushed it over the finish line,” Gruberg said. “And what we’re expecting with these new Democratic trifecta states is some more movement.”

Gruberg and Stender are energized by the results of the 2022 midterm elections, where Democrats flipped multiple state legislative chambers, flipped and held key governorships and gained control of state government in four states. In Minnesota, Gruberg noted, each chamber of the state legislature had previously passed a paid family leave law that now has a much higher chance of passing with a Democratic trifecta – the government plus both legislative chambers – in the state.

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“The November election really opened the door to more state opportunities,” she said.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which turns 30 in 2023, guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave for most workers but covers only those who have worked for 12 months at a workplace with a certain number of employees — leaving many gig, contract and domestic workers without any guaranteed leave.

Some states are aiming to address those gaps with laws protecting domestic workers and expanding access to paid leave to more categories of workers.

“When you have really critical workers and critical industries not having access to paid sick leave, that’s a problem for our whole economy,” Gruberg said. “Just because your workplace doesn’t offer paid sick leave doesn’t mean you’re not going to get sick.”

In California, Stender and Equal Rights Advocates helped pass new bills, which went into effect January 1, that expand the state’s paid family leave program to allow workers to take time off care for extended and chosen family members and guarantee five days of protected bereavement leave.

“Fighting for policy change in California for women and other working people is critical because it not only benefits women and workers here in California, but it really does often set a blueprint for other states and hopefully, ultimately, the federal government to follow,” Stender said.

It’s not just paid leave that Congress has largely left to the states. Congress’ 2022 omnibus spending bill included landmark federal labor protections for pregnant and breastfeeding workers but did not revive the expanded child tax credit. The tax credit, expanded in the 2021 American Rescue Plan, helped spur a 40-percent drop in child poverty between 2020 and 2021. But Congress let it expire at the end of that year, and the number of children living below the poverty line has steadily increased. 

“The expansion showed, really clearly, that poverty is a policy choice,” Gruberg said of the child tax credit. “And it is unconscionable to not continue these measures to support lifting children and families out of poverty.”

The expanded child tax credit also more readily allowed parents to access child care and participate in the workforce, which benefited the overall economy, advocates and many business owners argue.

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Anne Zimmerman, a certified public accountant and a co-chair of Small Business for America’s Future, told The 19th that the expanded child tax credit lapsing is yet another barrier that contributes to an “uneven playing field” between small businesses and large companies with generous benefits in hiring and retaining workers.

“It makes the challenge of finding workers that much harder,” said Zimmerman, founder and owner of a Cincinnati-based accounting firm.

In a survey the organization conducted in September 2021, over 60 percent of small business owners supported the expanded child tax credit and said regular monthly payments enabled employees to afford dependable child care.

“That certainly benefits us as small businesses because we need workers with stable schedules,” Zimmerman said. “All of Main Street needs affordable, reliable child care, and I think that’ll hurt us.”

The states are yet again stepping in, with lawmakers in New York and Connecticut proposing state-level expansions of the child tax credit, Pluribus News reported. Stender said legislators in California will probably also pursue state-level child tax credit expansions and efforts to increase salaries for childcare workers.

But workers and businesses in Republican-controlled states unlikely to pass an expanded child tax credit or benefits for working parents, like Ohio, will still be left out in the cold.

“It puts one more hardship on that family, on that mother trying to work that I’m trying to hire,” Zimmerman said.


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