Today, Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer introduced two bills aimed at working families. Twist—she’s a Republican. Double twist—advocates of paid-leave programs that are already in place in a growing number of cities and states aren’t very impressed. Is Fischer’s Republican version of paid sick and maternity leave a cynical political maneuvering meant to lend artifice to empty intentions or a sincere attempt to craft a conservative solution to this country’s terrible record of addressing the needs of working women and their families?
On their face, Fischer’s two bills, called the Workplace Advancement Act and the Strong Families Act, sound pretty great. Everybody likes advancing in workplaces, and there’s nothing more fun to include in an annual Christmas letter than a strong family. Fischer announced the bills’ introduction with a tweet that included a graphic of high-heeled shoes, symbolizing women, and a silhouette of a family, also symbolizing women. And, for those who had assumed that a Republican House, Senate, and White House meant no movement on equality issues that are near and dear to the hearts of women (and men who care about them), the move might seem on its face to be a nice upside surprise. Who knew Republicans had their own take on feminism? It’s like discovering that your dad’s favorite restaurant delivers.
But, like all things, it’s more complicated than its best face would suggest. For starters, the Workplace Advancement Act is a rehashing of existing law that bars employers from reprimanding or punishing employees for asking how much their colleagues make. A cynic might argue that reinventing the wheel in this case simply gives Republicans who struggle with the lady vote the opportunity to bolster their bona fides without rocking the boat. A pragmatist would wonder why anybody’s bothering with it.
Fischer’s paid-leave legislation is a little more interesting. The Strong Families Act isn’t like what’s currently in place in states like California, Washington D.C., and New Jersey (and in the works in places like Washington state, Oregon, and Connecticut). In those states, workers contribute small amounts to an insurance-like fund that provides salaries to employees taking time off work for a variety of reasons, including care for an infant. California’s program provides up to 12 weeks paid leave, depending on circumstances.
Fischer’s proposed law doesn’t go as far as the version of paid leave currently working its way through American states and municipalities. In fact, it’s really more a set of tax credits than anything. Businesses voluntarily enter the program, which requires they provide a minimum of four weeks’ paid leave in addition to the Family and Medical Leave Act leave currently in place for employees. Businesses that opt in would receive a 25 percent tax credit per hour that the employee was given paid leave. There are caps and limits for how much a business can claim per employee per year.
Framers of the Strong Families Act don’t view the proposal as a panacea. But it’s better than what this country currently has in place, which is: nothing. “We believe a 25 percent tax credit is significant,” Fischer’s communications director Briana Puccini tells The Daily Beast. “It is voluntary, would apply to employers of all sizes, and could be taken on an hourly basis. More data will help us know the effect of the credit. That’s why we have requested the GAO analyze this and report at the end of the two-year program to evaluate the credit’s impact.” Think free market plus feminism.
Activists who have devoted the last several years to establishing momentum for the paid-leave movement feel slightly differently.
Joe Dinkin, national communications director of the Working Families Party, didn’t mince words in his critique of Fischer’s paid-leave solution. He tells The Daily Beast that the move is akin to Republican window dressing, “totally and transparently.” To people like Dinkin, the move seems like an attempt to create brand confusion. Sort of like going to the store and seeing Lucky Charms right next to an unknown flavor of cereal called Fortunate Elves, a store-brand that rides Kelloggs’ coattails by aping its mascots and packaging, by leading consumers to believe it’s just like the brand they know and love. But it’s all sugar and no marshmallows.
The Republican Party has a problem, Dinkin notes. Voters don’t like candidates that vocally oppose things like “equal pay” and “family leave.” Republicans, meanwhile, can’t really support those policies without betraying their principles. With a bill like Fischer’s knocking around, Republicans can be pro-family leave, too!
“Giving a business a tax cut is not exactly a revolution,” he adds.
Ellen Bravo, co-director of the group Family Values at Work, was slightly more generous. “Regardless of intent, a program like [Fischer’s] lacks substance and it gives the appearance of being more concerned about claiming that you’re doing something for women than actually doing it,” she says.
With Republicans in control of the House, Senate, and White House, enacting a federal paid-leave policy that satisfies activist organizations like Family Values at Work seems far-fetched, at least until after the next legislative term begins in 2019. Despite this, Dinkin is optimistic that the California-Washington-etc. model’s popularity at the local and state level will propel it to such a position of national favor that Republicans will have no excuse but to pass it.
Given the wildness of the first three weeks of the Trump administration, it’s impossible to say whose version of paid leave will gain federal traction, if any. Maybe progressives will get their way and see paid leave surf a wave of populism into law from the states up. Maybe the movement’s momentum will be enough to sustain it through some years of gridlock before being enacted, intact, at the federal level. But it’s also possible, given the lessons of recent history, that the only way Republicans will allow anything to happen is if they’re convinced one of their own helped come up with it. And maybe, in the short term, Fischer’s is the best progressives can hope for. After all, it’s not nothing.