Bipartisan talks expected on paid family leave

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WASHINGTON – Bipartisan legislation on paid family leave could be on the horizon as lawmakers look to work across the aisle to address the issue.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona is set to be the first Democrat to work alongside Republicans on a paid parental leave idea, Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., said Wednesday at an event sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute.

"It is the first bill that is bipartisan," Cassidy said, a week after the GOP re-introduced a bill which would allow parents to draw from Social Security to supplement their income during parental leave.

Cassidy didn’t give much detail on a timetable, but said it would happen soon. Funding was also muddy, as he distanced himself from the idea of increasing payroll taxes, but was also skeptical about pulling from Social Security.

“We need to keep the working middle class family and less well-off as our prism, and look at each of these payment options how [the employee] would receive it and act on it,” he said. “But we have to be mindful of both the employer and employee as we craft this.”

Cassidy did not go into specifics about his ideas on being mindful of employers, though the potential of paid parental leave legislation is a pressing concern for companies nationwide.

While many lawmakers have been calling for federal paid leave, most employers argue against mandating it, saying it will cost them too much and create unnecessarily administrative burdens.

“It’s important to note that [employers] are already paying the lion’s share of healthcare costs. Adding additional taxes would be a burden to all involved,” Cheryl Larson, president and CEO of the Midwest Business Group on Health, told EBN last week.

When considering the best approach to paid family leave, there are three big issues that come up: How to pay for it, whether or not to go with just parental leave or a comprehensive bundled approach, and how does this relate to Social Security and all its problems, added Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution, working in the Center on Children and Families and on the Future of the Middle Class Initiative.

She said the conversation will be tough, and doesn’t expect any actual legislation to pass this year, but is hopeful at bipartisan support.

“I would say I was very encouraged by the fact they’re talking about a bipartisan effort in the Senate,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to do anything to discourage that and I hope we can keep the conversation open.”

Funding will be difficult, and she doesn’t yet have any magic answer.

“You have one group of people saying ‘Let’s pay for this now, and let’s do it in a collective matter through social insurance so everyone is contributing,’ and another group saying ‘let’s pay for it later and at an individual level,’” she says.

She also points to the 2017 tax law, which extended the child tax credit, doubled it and moved up the income scale to $400,000 a year per couple for eligibility.

“I’m sitting here, thinking, 'Oh my gosh, we can’t find a way to pay a very small amount of money for a parental leave program,'” she said. “Is there some way to say if you’re going to have a baby, we let you have your child tax credit sooner? We should think creatively about that child tax credit.”

Additionally, she said, lawmakers should also focus on boosting paid medical leave if it isn’t something that can be bundled with paid family leave. A medical event is totally unpredictable, whereas having a baby should be at least partially a planned event, she said.

“People tend to be young without savings, but on the other hand you can get cancer when you’re young too,” she noted. “The whole idea of giving priority to parental leave over medical, the fact we don’t have mandated sick leave and have sick people going to work and getting others sick, I’ve always thought was just terrible public policy.”

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