Reinstating pandemic paid family leave

During the first phase of the pandemic, some working parents had a lever to pull if their children’s school or daycare shuttered due to COVID or if their child was quarantined. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), signed by President Trump on March 18th of 2020, was passed with overwhelming bipartisan majorities of 363 in the House and 90 in the Senate. The bill created emergency paid sick leave and paid family leave mandates. These mandates expired at the end of 2020—and tax credits for companies to voluntarily extend the benefits expired in September 2021—yet bizarrely Congress has made no public moves to reinstate provisions that would provide a lifeline to millions of parents.

To be sure, the FFCRA was no panacea. The provisions only applied to private employers with less than 500 employees, so the Amazons and American Airlines of the world were exempt. Nonetheless, many people were able to take advantage of the leave when they fell ill or schools closed. An April 2021 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 92% of covered companies had at least one employee use the emergency paid sick leave provisions, while over two-thirds had at least one employee use emergency paid family leave. The presence of these benefits today would also put further pressure on large employers to follow suit given the competitive labor market–employers that are busy cutting back paid leave options.

As it stands, the Omicron wave is hammering parents by creating a wave of disruptions due to staff shortage-related closures, as well as child quarantines and illnesses. Consider the story of Latoya Hamilton, as reported recently in The Washington Post:

Latoya Hamilton had just taken a job as a medical assistant when she got notice last week that her daughter’s school was going online temporarily. The single mother asked for time off. When it was denied, she did the only thing she could: quit.

… ‘I am completely by myself now,’ said Hamilton, 41 and a resident of Queens who has two children, ages 5 and 12, in New York City public schools, and a 20-year-old daughter with special needs at the Lexington School for the Deaf. ‘My bills have to get paid, but I can’t just leave my children unattended at home. What am I going to do?

Beyond the moral and economic imperatives, there is a political calculus here as well. Democrats have been struggling with parent voters and Republicans try to claim the parent-friendly mantle (despite stubborn opposition to actually making parents’ lives easier through affordable childcare and non-pandemic paid leave). Reinstating emergency paid leave policies would be a tangible step towards showing the party is, in fact, in parents’ corner. State-and local-level Democrats can also step up, and some are—California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently called for the legislature to send him a resumption of the state’s emergency paid leave policies.

As for the Republicans? Wrangling 10 votes in the Senate to break a filibuster is never easy. However, in this case all but eight Republican Senators have already voted for the bill and the legislation bears the signature of their party’s venerated leader. The FFCRA was incredibly popular; May 2020 polling in Arizona, Iowa, and North Carolina found that 85% of voters supported the emergency leave provisions, with 57% in strong support. If the GOP truly wants to flip-flop and take the anti-parent side of the question, there will be consequences: after all, schools and childcare programs in red states are closing due to COVID staffing shortages, too.

Some may argue that reinstating the FFCRA is too little, too late, particularly since the Omicron wave is likely to begin peaking in the coming weeks. Yet passing a modified version now would both help with the current wave and could include triggers for activation during any future variant waves, a proactive step acknowledging the new reality we live in. Moreover, this time around there would be the opportunity to strengthen the law and fill in its gaps such as by raising the 500-employee cap–something President Biden called for back in January 2021.

There are policy questions which are complex and nuanced, requiring long and deep deliberation. Making sure that parents have access to paid leave when their children’s school closes or their child is exposed to Covid is not one of them. Given that the legislation only needs to be updated, one imagines even a gridlocked Washington could move rapidly here. The best time to reinstate the Families First Coronavirus Response Act was several months ago. The second-best time is today.

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