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When Family Leave Crosses the Aisle

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All politicians -- whether Democratic or Republican -- have a mother. While their politics may differ, they share a need to care for parents and other family at some point in their lives. That's common ground.

Two decades ago on February 5, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was signed into law and has helped millions of families -- whatever their politics. Under the FMLA some people can keep their jobs when they take up to 12 unpaid weeks to care for their own or a family member's serious illness or when a new child arrives. This bipartisan accomplishment is worth celebrating; it also is a time to help more families in blue and red states alike.

The time is ripe to find common political ground on family issues. The November election revealed a huge gender and Hispanic voter gap between the two parties. As Republicans seek to close the gap, new proposals about short-term job leave that help keep families together ought to prove fertile ground. Bipartisanship is hard work. In the Senate in the 1990s, when Republican Sen. Kit Bond crossed the aisle to join forces with Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd on the FMLA, they had to push past the charges of those in the business community that any leave law would unravel companies. Bond and Dodd found ways to agree.

The FMLA has already accomplished a lot. Millions of families have been able to take job protected leave. Both men and women take FMLA leave -- in 2012, about 14 percent of men and 18 percent of women. The FMLA has translated into time for baby-bonding, care for an elder recovering from a stroke, and having a job to go back to after chemo and radiation treatments.

FMLA could have accomplished more, but for two reasons. First, leave is only possible for workers in firms with at least 50 employees and who have worked at least a year. That excludes about 40 percent of all workers. Second, the leave is unpaid. That means, even for those who are eligible for unpaid leave, taking it is unaffordable; among those who needed the time but did not take it, nearly half found that taking leave was out of their reach because they simply could not go without pay.

States are already demonstrating new directions for the federal government. A number of state laws have increased access to unpaid leave under the FMLA. And, two states are already implementing paid family leave. In New Jersey and California workers who take leave get partial wage replacement; the money comes from a pool funded by employees' wages. Structured like insurance, employees contribute less than half of one percent of wages to the fund.

Employers with actual experience implementing family leave insurance programs are supportive. When California's law was debated, employers expressed a range of concerns. But after more than five years' experience, the vast majority of those surveyed reported the law had minimal impact on their business operations.

And for politicians who want to close the gender gap, the observations of Margot Dorfman, CEO of the U.S. Women's Chamber of Commerce, should matter: "Women business owners get it. They know the value of family and medical leave. Twenty years after the passage of the FMLA, it's time for improvements to this crucial legislation."

Republican thought-leaders are beginning to see work-life issues as valuable to political agendas. At a Brookings Institution and Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity convening, John Bridgeland, former director of the Domestic Policy Council under President George W. Bush, noted that after the 2012 election, "a lot of areas are just ripe for creative energy for Republicans and Democrats to work together on. And I think [work-life balance] is one of them."

The clear majority of voters in both parties want Congress and the president to consider new laws such as family and medical leave insurance. A recent bipartisan poll found that 96 percent of Democrats and fully 72 percent of Republicans take this view. And, for those politicians/policymakers who want to close the Hispanic voter gap, it is notable that nearly 80 percent of Latinos consider congressional and presidential action on FMLA to be "very important."

Voter, business, and thought-leader voices on both sides of the aisle need to be heard. It's time to expand unpaid leave to cover the 40 percent of all workers who are currently ineligible and to establish national family and medical leave insurance to meet 21st century workforce needs. Some in the business community will undoubtedly argue that leave policy -- whatever shape it takes -- will collapse our economy. But if both red and blue politicians want to be seen as pro-family, it's a political challenge that can be met.

Alternatively, for members of Congress, inaction is always possible. Congressman: What would your mother say?

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