United States Senators Bill Cassidy (R-La) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz) have announced that President Donald Trump will be pushing for their bipartisan paid family leave act. The Charlotte Observer reported on January 31 that President Trump would express his support for the “Cassidy-Sinema” plan in Tuesday’s State of the Union Address. The White House is expected to tout recent legislation that guarantees 12 weeks of paid family leave for employees of the federal government.
But some observers are worried that the proposed Senate plan would be unhelpful to those who need it most.
Instead of offering subsidized programs to guarantee universal child care, as Senators Sanders and Warren have proposed, the Cassidy-Sinema plan allows workers an increased child tax credit of up to $5,000, up from the current threshold of $2,000. The plan permits the tax credit to be accessed immediately, subsidizing lost wages during a period of family leave.
Some policy researchers have criticized this plan as tantamount to a loan that working families will have to pay off with reduced tax credits in the future.
Kathleen Romig notes that this policy will have no actual protections for employees seeking to take time off, so many workers in service sectors would risk losing their jobs entirely. Romig also points out that the details are sparse on how this plan would cover costs for low-income workers. By front-loading the child tax credit, they would be sacrificing their tax credits on income tax returns for years to come.
“The bill thus provides no net new financial help for families,” she wrote in an article for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “In effect, it is a loan that families would repay during some of a family’s most financially crunched years. . . . Families who took this ‘advance’ would have to repay it for ten or 15 years.”
The article also points out several major blind spots in the policy proposal. First, the law would not expand the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to cover the roughly 40 percent of Americans who work for companies too small to fall under the FMLA. And the law only applies to new parents, not existing parents.
Wendy Chun-Hoon, the director of Family Values @ Work, described the proposed policy of borrowing from your own tax credits in similarly dubious terms. “[A]ll the parents we know need every penny of that tax credit, which doesn’t come close to covering necessities,” Chun-Hoon wrote. “It’s like robbing Paulette to pay Paulette.”
Further, this proposal comes at a time of existing bipartisan support for more generous and comprehensive family leave policies. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Rosa DeLaura (D-Conn.) have introduced a competing, bipartisan plan with hundreds of cosponsors in the House and Senate.
The Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (FAMILY) would guarantee “up to 12 weeks of paid leave each year. . .and for self-care or the care of a seriously ill family member. It would pool small contributions from employees and employers,” Chun-Hoon wrote in the Arizona Capitol Times, noting that this bill is modeled off of existing legislation in eight states and the District of Columbia.
Contrary to the Cassidy-Sinema plan, existing state legislation and the FAMILY Act ensure that low-income workers get their full paychecks during leave and can keep their jobs when they are ready to return.
While the latter program may be more costly, a Pew Research poll found that 82 percent of Americans supported paid maternity leave, and 69 percent supported paid paternity leave. A majority of Americans support such programs even if they have to pay a small amount extra each year.
The United States is the only wealthy nation that does not offer paid family leave. Every nation in the world offers some form of paid family leave except for New Guinea, Suriname, a few small Pacific island states, and the United States.
Maternal mortality is greater in the United States than any other wealthy, or “developed,” nation in the world, at a rate of 26.4 per 100,000 births in 2017, and it is the highest among Black mothers. The next highest maternal mortality rate is in the United Kingdom, trailing at a rate of 9.2 deaths per 100,000 births. The Cassidy-Sinema plan does not provide any protections for workers who take off to care for a very ill child.
Charles Schully is the founder of Bike Uneasy, a lawyer, and contributing writer for Big Easy Magazine.