During the 2008 campaign and as President, Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama have called for mandated paid leave as a key part of their approach to work family balance issues. U.S. Department of Labor Deputy Secretary Seth Harris testified before Congress last November that federally mandated paid leave remains a key Administration priority. The main congressional vehicle for paid leave is the Healthy Families Act, which would require all employers with more than fifteen employees to provide paid sick leave. Mandated paid leave remains a key priority of labor and women's groups. Their hope has been that once health care had passed, the oxygen would return to the room on other domestic priorities, like paid leave. Given the President's success on health care, progressive groups have renewed optimism that mandated paid leave might be possible.
However, there are many obstacles standing in the way of federally mandated paid leave.
First, the passage of health care legislation on a partisan basis will leave the Administration looking for bipartisan ideas in order to move to the center before the fall 2010 elections and the 2012 Presidential elections. Federally mandated paid leave is a non starter for most Republicans. The Healthy Families Act, for example, has twenty-four cosponsors in the Senate and no Republicans.
Secondly, the Administration must confront the accusation that paid leave would put America on the path to European style socialism. The tea-party movement caught fire in the health care debate by arguing that Obama was leading America to become "socialist, like Europe." An increased governmental role in health care is the first example they used, but following up with European style paid leave would fuel the tea-party movement.
Thirdly, the Administration took heat for focusing on health care instead of focusing like a laser on jobs and the economy. With unemployment hovering near double digits, the Administration will be reluctant to push for new mandates in areas beyond health care that will be viewed by business and the public as adding new requirements to business that could cost jobs.
Fourth, there are other domestic priorities of higher level of attention for the Administration. If Obama does decide to take a chance on reform in the domestic area in the near term, he will likely focus on issues like immigration, energy and the environment -- leaving little political capital for paid leave.
Fifth, the calendar works against paid leave. Democrats will begin to look to the middle between now and the November 2010 elections. Despite the lack of a public option in the health care bill, progressive groups were pleased that the President and Democratic congressional leadership stuck together to achieve broader health care coverage. With the President's poll numbers having declined over the past few months, he will be careful about trying new policy ideas that lack broad support.
The one bright spot for those who favor paid leave is the shift going on in work life policy generally. In the House, the Work-Life Balance Award Act, for which there was a House hearing April 22, is likely to gain broad bipartisan support. The Society of Human Resource Management has developed a legislative proposal that encourages paid leave as long as it's not mandated. Finally, the March 31 White House Forum on Workplace Flexibility is drawing attention to the important issue of work life balance. We discussed this recent progress and workplace flexibility generally at the New America Foundation last week.
These developments in the work life field could alter the landscape and at very least provide more work life support for employees regardless of whether or not federally mandated paid leave becomes the law of the land.
Paid leave for extended time off remains enough of a priority that it is worth discussing and watching closely. As a result, New America will be hosting an event on the subject on June 15.