Faced with federal inertia, many states and cities have enacted their own paid vacation and child care laws. More recently, the midterm elections saw voters elect state and federal candidates who campaigned on paid leave and child care — and passed measures like a New Mexico constitutional amendment that established the universal pre-K.
“We have more pro-workers, pro-family, [Democratic] three states now with the last election,” Gruberg said. “We will continue to see states not waiting for the federal government.”
But between states, “there’s a good amount of variation,” Gould said — and that, too, could worsen inequality.
“There will be places where this is unlikely to happen and it will only 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 time off, including a voluntary tax credit for employers who offer the latter. Yet to level the playing field for workers, employers may not be able to opt in or out, experts say.
“Voluntary solutions [like tax credits] don’t get paid time off into the hands of workers who need it,” Shabo said. She cites a recent legislative effort by the Sens. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) and Angus King (I-Maine) who established voluntary paid vacation tax credits as an example: “We’ve had what, four years of experience [with the voluntary tax credit legislation in place] …and it hasn’t really moved the needle” when it comes to extending paid leave to more workers.
“The main reason we fought for federal law is that I believe without it there will never be fairness,” Huckelbridge said. “It’s something everyone should have access to, no matter where you work or live.”
Democratic lawmakers preach urgency. But any further progress on the issue, or on paid leave, will likely have to wait until the next session — when lawmakers will face a divided House and Senate.
Already, Republicans and Democrats have found common ground on child care; while Republicans disagreed with the proposal included in previous versions of Democrats’ Build Back Better, they also cited the need for more robust spending.
The chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Patty Murray, a former preschool teacher, hopes to spend $1 billion on child care under the current appropriations cycle. “If we rely solely on private industry to do this, there will be huge inequality for women in our country,” Murray said.
Paid leave, on the other hand, can be a harder sell. Many GOP lawmakers argue that a federal paid vacation program — especially one that doesn’t allow employers to opt out — could bankrupt businesses, especially small ones, and exacerbate an already tight labor market.