In the face of federal inertia, many states and cities have enacted their own paid leave and child care laws. Most recently, the midterm elections saw voters elect state and federal candidates who campaigned on paid leave and child care — and pass measures like a New Mexico constitutional amendment that established universal pre-K.
“We have more pro-worker, pro-family, [Democratic] trifecta states now with the latest election,” Gruberg said. “We will continue to see states not wait for the federal government.”
But between states, “there’s a fair amount of variation,” Gould said — and that, too, could worsen inequality.
“There’s going to be places where it’s unlikely to ever pass and so it’s just going to create layer upon layer of inequity,” said Dawn Huckelbridge, director of Paid Leave for All.
There are a handful of federal policies in place that bolster child care and paid leave, including a voluntary tax credit for employers that offer the latter. Yet to even the playing field for workers, employers cannot be able to opt-in or out, experts say.
“Voluntary solutions [like tax credits] aren’t getting paid leave into the hands of the workers who need it,” Shabo said. She cites a recent legislative effort by Sens. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) and Angus King (I-Maine) that established voluntary paid leave tax credits as one example: “We’ve had what, four years of experience [with the voluntary tax credit legislation in place] … and it hasn’t really moved any kind of needle” when it comes to expanding paid leave to more workers.
“The main reason we’ve been fighting for a federal law is that I believe without that there will never be equity,” Huckelbridge said. “It’s something that everyone should have access to no matter where you work or where you live.”
Democratic lawmakers are preaching urgency. But any further progress on the issue, or on paid leave, will likely need to wait until next session — when lawmakers will have to contend with a divided House and Senate.
Already, Republicans and Democrats have found some common ground on child care; while Republicans disagreed with the proposal included in earlier iterations of Democrats’ Build Back Better, they have also cited the need for more robust spending.
Senate Health, Education Labor and Pensions Committee Chair Patty Murray, a former preschool teacher, hopes to pass $1 billion for child care as part of the current appropriations cycle. “If we just rely on private industry to do this, there will be a huge inequity for women in our country,” Murray said.
Paid leave, on the other hand, may be a harder sell. Many GOP lawmakers maintain that a federal paid leave program — particularly one that doesn’t allow employers to opt out — could bankrupt businesses, especially small ones, and exacerbate an already-tight labor market.