Today, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand spoke on the Senate floor urging her colleagues to include paid family and medical leave provisions in the Build Back Better bill.
For nearly ten years, Senator Gillibrand has been fighting to create a national paid leave program, which would help prevent workers from having to choose between their paycheck and their health or the health of a loved one. During the pandemic, we saw firsthand how this affected more than 5 million women who lost their jobs. The United States is the only industrialized country without a paid leave program and, today, nearly 8 in 10 workers in America still do not have access to paid family leave. Including a universal paid leave program in the Build Back Better Bill is beneficial to both employees and employers, and would help mitigate the impossible choice so people can take care of their children, their aging parents, and themselves without worrying about losing their job or their paycheck.
Below are Senator Gillibrand’s remarks as prepared for delivery:
M. President, I rise to join my colleagues in calling for the Build Back Better bill to include provisions that will solve the problems working people and families have been facing for too long and that were magnified by COVID.
Paid leave is the perfect example. Today, nearly 8 in 10 workers in America don’t have paid family leave. Those numbers are even worse for lower wage workers, just 12 percent of whom have access to paid family leave. But we know nearly every single worker will need paid leave at some point – whether they are dealing with another pandemic or a personal emergency.
We have to recognize that workers are people first – people who get sick, who have babies, who adopt children, who need to care for their children when they get sick, who have parents who age and die. They work to provide for those families, but providing for your family means – first and foremost – being able to care for them. Without paid leave they can’t. They are forced to make an impossible choice between their family and their paycheck and we see the reality of those choices every day.
We send new mothers back to work while they are still bleeding, while their stitches are healing, before they can even recognize postpartum depression. We force them to leave their babies when they are just days old – they can’t nurse them, they can’t bond with them. And they can’t even put them in child care because they are too young.
Right now, many women get less time with their babies than dogs get before being separated from their puppies. That is how we’re valuing women workers right now – less than dogs.
This issue extends far beyond new mothers. New fathers should be able to stay home with new children. Parents with sick children should be able to care for them without fear of losing their job. And workers who need to move a parent to a memory care facility or take them to chemotherapy should be able to do so without risking their professional future. Without paid leave too many workers have no choice but to quit their jobs at the very moment they most need a paycheck and health insurance. It’s inhumane.
Not having a paid leave program also leaves us vulnerable to future health crises. If we’d had paid leave in place before the pandemic, millions of people could’ve stayed home from work when they got sick, limiting the spread of COVID, or could’ve stayed home with their children when schools closed, limiting the number of people who lost or had to leave their jobs.
I heard from a New Yorker named Amir, whose son’s health and special needs were becoming significantly more complex, and required his and his spouse’s full attention around the clock for weeks. At a time of great stress, they were not only worrying about how they could best care for their son, but also how they could maintain their livelihoods. Luckily, they were able to turn to New York’s state paid leave program. He told me it saved their family – they were able to focus on being good parents without harming their ability to be good professionals.
Your ability to access that kind of support should not be dependent on where you live. But right now, just 9 states and DC have enacted paid leave legislation, leaving far too many Americans vulnerable.
The numbers prove that paid leave keeps people employed, providing stability to their families and the companies they work for. A study in the Journal of Population Economics found that women who take paid family leave are 40 percent more likely to return to work after having a new child than those who don’t take it. And, in general, workers who can take paid leave return to their job up to 97 percent of the time. That makes paid leave a good business investment – it helps ensure that the time and money companies invest into an employee doesn’t walk out the door when the employee gets sick.
Furthermore, when paid leave was implemented in California, nine in ten employers said that either did not change or improved profitability, employee productivity and morale, and many said it decreased turnover.
Major corporations already know that offering paid leave helps them attract and retain the best talent. By making this program universal, we can level the playing field and allow small businesses to compete with them and hire the best of the best. In fact, that same survey of California employers found that small businesses were actually more likely to report seeing no change or an improvement in their productivity and profitability when paid leave was implemented. So, it is not surprising to see that 70 percent of small business owners and operators support the creation of a national paid leave program.
State programs have also shown us that these programs are not targets for fraud. In California, 91 percent of employers said that they were unaware of any instances where their employees abused the state’s paid leave program. And in a study of New Jersey employers, none were aware of any instances of employees abusing the state’s paid leave program.
Creating a national paid leave program makes economic sense. Every year that we go without paid leave costs American workers and their families 22.6 billion dollars in lost wages. That’s 22.6 billion dollars that could be going back into our economy – helping families get groceries, pay bills or buy homes. And it’s estimated that the mass exodus of women from the workforce during COVID could have long-term costs as high as 64.5 billion dollars in lost wages and economic activity every year. We can stem those losses now if we take action.
I would also like to note, for those who are worried about the price tag of this bill, that paid leave was included in the House version of this bill, which the CBO found essentially pays for itself.
There is a reason every other industrialized nation – with every kind of political system – has paid leave: it works. Most of them offer far more leave than this bill would, and their economies are proof that it is a net-positive. We can’t be a global economic leader when we’re not even in the game.
Beyond all of that – this is what the American people, the people who send us here to serve them, want. A full 70 percent of voters – including 81 percent of Democrats and 58 percent of Republicans – said that paid family and medical leave should be included in the reconciliation bill. This bill is designed to help the American people, and this is the help they are asking for.
This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape the American workplace. We should not squander it. To my colleagues who say that we should not proceed on paid leave until we can do so in a bipartisan manner, I say that the American people cannot afford to wait for us to have the same conversations for another year that lead us to the same result – offers of a plan that is not universal or mandatory. A voluntary plan is not what the American people want or need. They need a plan that covers all workers for all life events.
There is good bipartisan work we can do in the future to build on the plan included in the House bill, and I look forward to doing that work. But this is not the moment to delay or deny the American people the help they clearly need. This is the moment to deliver on paid leave and invest in the future of our families, our middle class, our companies, and our country.
We should not miss this chance. We should include paid leave in the Build Back Better Bill.