The $900 billion relief proposal unveiled Wednesday morning by a bipartisan group of senators includes a long list of items that are absolutely necessary for fighting the pandemic through the coming gruesome winter. There’s more unemployment relief, money for vaccine distribution, and funds to help feed an increasing number of hungry Americans.
One crucial policy is missing: an extension of the paid family and sick leave benefits passed by Congress in March.
Public health and women’s advocates are angry and baffled by the omission. “It’s an affront to all reason,” said Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow at New America who specializes in paid family leave. “It’s beyond incomprehensible, short-sighted and ridiculous given the public health benefits that are proven and the growing number of parents home with kids.”
The current paid sick and family leave provisions expire at the end of December.
The sick leave provides workers with up to two weeks paid time off if they contract COVID-19 or believe they’ve been exposed to it. The family leave policy provides up to 12 weeks off ― 10 of which are partially paid ― for parents who need to be home with children attending virtual school or whose day care or school is closed.
The leave policies support Americans in at least three ways. First, there are the health benefits. A recent study found that the emergency paid sick leave helped reduce the spread of COVID-19. Second, there’s the small business piece: Many business owners say the leave has helped them through the crisis, enabling them to hang on to workers through the ups and downs of exposures and quarantines. (The policy exempts companies with more than 500 employees.)
Finally, the emergency paid family leave has helped many parents ― particularly working mothers — keep their jobs at a time when that’s proving close to impossible. Already, roughly 2.2 million women have been forced out of work entirely because of this pandemic, a development that economists believe will set back a generation of workers.
“The idea that you would remove the incentive they would have to provide a safe workspace is, again, mind-boggling.”
Vicki Shabo, senior fellow at New America
“If they let one of our most cost-effective and impactful tools to fight COVID expire as the pandemic is peaking, they’re ignoring the needs of their voters, small businesses and working families everywhere,” said Dawn Huckelbridge, director of Paid Leave for All.
She pointed out that paid leave is also cost effective. The Joint Committee on Taxation estimates it would cost $1.8 billion to extend the policy for three months, according to a report in Politico’s Morning Shift newsletter. That’s about one-tenth of the Congressional Budget Office’s original projection, and far cheaper than unemployment benefits.
To be clear, a policy like paid leave keeps workers from becoming unemployed. One ice cream shop owner in Seattle told HuffPost this week that three working mothers at her company are using the family leave policy in order to juggle virtual schooling with their jobs at the scoop shop.
House Democrats led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), small business groups, public health professionals, and parents organizations are all still fighting to get the paid leave provision back into any kind of relief package Congress passes in this session, advocates said. Some are hopeful that the final version of the package will include an extension; lawmakers are still far from a deal.
“This is an emergency package,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). “They’re still working out all the language for the bill itself. You’re seeing the summary of the section by section.”
But paid leave advocates said Senate Republicans — particularly Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — have been a major roadblock. Instead of extending benefits, McConnell wants to create a provision that will shield businesses from being sued by their employees over coronavirus-related claims.
“Pelosi and others are fighting for it,” said Ellen Bravo, a strategic advisor for Family Values @ Work, a network of advocacy groups. “We unfortunately have a Senate majority leader who’s trying to bully his way on protecting corporations while ignoring workers.”
To let companies get away with not providing sick leave and at the same time exempt them from liability for lawsuits is unconscionable, advocates said. “The idea that you would remove the incentive they would have to provide a safe workspace,” said Shabo, “is, again, mind-boggling.”
Others took issue with how women in particular would be affected.
“Senate Republicans have resisted meaningful policy change for two key issues — paid leave and child care — that are critical for women, their families and overall economic growth,” said Shilpa Phadke, vice president of the women’s initiative at the Center for American Progress. “This is just another example of how Senate Republicans continue to dismiss and ignore what women and families need.”
Igor Bobic contributed reporting.
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