Congressional Paid-Leave Initiatives Spark Catholic Conversation
Competing proposals have been introduced by Democrat and Republican lawmakers to provide paid parental leave.
WASHINGTON — In an effort that is being praised by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Democrat and Republican lawmakers are introducing legislation in response to widespread public support for paid parental leave.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., introduced The Economic Security for New Parents Act Aug.1. According to a summary provided by the senator’s office, the proposal will allow new parents to use their Social Security benefits to help fund at least two months of leave in exchange for delaying retirement by three to six months per child.
Democrats have proposed another legislative effort, the “FAMILY Act,” which would provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave funded by a small increase in the payroll tax. If enacted into law, the FAMILY Act would mandate the creation of the Office of Paid Family and Medical Leave within the Social Security Administration.
U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who is sponsoring the FAMILY Act, has criticized Rubio’s proposal for asking new parents to borrow from their retirement funds and failing to include support for families who use parental leave for life events beyond childbirth or adoption. Rubio has stated that his bill was created to address the needs of working parents without increasing taxes or burdens on businesses.
As lawmakers disagree over who should qualify for and how to fund a new entitlement, questions similarly remain for many Catholics over the best way to protect the interests of working families.
U.S. Policies, in Perspective
According to the Pew Research Center, the United States is the only major power that does not have a national paid parental-leave policy in place.
Though entitlements vary by nation, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reports that mothers in OECD countries typically receive more than 50% of their salary and around 18 weeks of leave for childbirth, with benefits for new fathers being more limited. Parental-leave entitlements are generally funded through social insurance programs or other public sources, rather than relying entirely on employer contributions.
In the United States, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA), signed into law by Democratic President Bill Clinton, mandates that employers provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for qualified employees for major medical and family reasons, including pregnancy, adoption or taking care of an ill family member. However, only about 60% of the workforce is eligible for FMLA protections, and many workers are unable to afford to take unpaid time off from work. A few states and many private employers have adopted their own policies in the absence of a national paid-leave program, but access is limited, especially for low-wage workers.
Isabel Sawhill, co-director of the AEI-Brookings Working Group on Paid Family Leave, told the Register that her colleagues recognize that many parents must both must work full time to support their families, but disagree over the proper public response to these challenges.
“Some of us think it’s time for the U.S. to adopt a paid-leave policy similar to what one finds in all other advanced countries,” said Sawhill, who added that she thinks Gillibrand’s bill is a step in that direction. “Others are not yet convinced that there is a strong role for government in this area, and to the extent they see one, it is around parental leave rather than leave for one’s own medical issues or to care for another family member.”
Mother of four Jenny George, 35, a parishioner of St. Michael Byzantine Catholic Church in Flushing, Michigan, told the Register that if she and her husband did not receive paid leave from their jobs at a plumbing and heating supply company, she “wouldn’t have a clue as to what we would do.”
Though George does not favor increasing taxes on working families and was unsure if Social Security is the best agency to administer a paid-leave program, she said, “I think everybody needs to be aware of [the issue]. …There are families out there that are working their hardest and may need a little bit of help.”
In addition to encouraging recent legislative initiatives as a means of addressing the needs of new parents, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has previously released a statement asserting that “public policy should protect people who have to take time away from their jobs to handle serious family responsibilities.”
Pope Francis stated in his 2016 encyclical Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) that parents have the right “to be able to count on an adequate family policy on the part of public authorities in the juridical, economic, social and fiscal domains.”
Catherine Pakaluk, an assistant economics professor at The Catholic University of America and a mother of eight children, told the Register that citizens should consider the long-term social impact before supporting a federal paid parental-leave program.
“I think that questions of debt and insolvency in federal programs should be of really big concern to Catholics,” said Pakaluk, who added that Social Security is a pay-as-you-go system in which today’s newborns will have to foot the bill for a system that their parents put in place.
Citing the 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, a cornerstone of Catholic social teaching issued by Pope Leo XIII, she emphasized that “thrift and savings,” local initiatives and charitable associations have historically been recommended by the Church as praiseworthy means by which people can “improve their lot in life.”
Before demanding federal intervention, Pakaluk said Catholics should ask themselves, “Does this really get the job done? What are the things that families need? Are there ways churches and local communities can help families through difficult times that don’t require a [new federal] program?”
Lucas Swanepoel, Catholic Charities USA vice president of social policy, told the Register that “we need to look at what we’re doing as institutions, but also at what we are doing as a community” to ensure that parents’ obligations to their children are respected in the workforce.
Referring to Gillibrand and Rubio’s separate proposals, he said that “we welcome the initiative by both of the members to actually begin this process to raise up this issue,” before stating that “we really hope there would be a truly bipartisan bill.”
“I think family-leave policy is one of those things we do need to take a serious look at as a nation if we’re going to have both parents in the workforce,” said Swanepoel. “Pope Francis talked about in Amoris Laetitia that families have a right to count on adequate family policy. I think as people of faith, we have to take that seriously.”
Register correspondent Mariana Barillas writes from Arlington, Virginia.