In 1984, a group of female attorneys huddled over a typewriter in an office of the Women’s Legal Defense Fund, now the National Partnership for Women & Families. They punched out a document that would eventually become the Family and Medical Leave Act, which today guarantees eligible workers 12 weeks of unpaid time off. To get the idea out into the world, they rolled out copies through a mimeograph machine.
Those women had originally wanted to push Congress to pass a national mandate for paid leave to welcome a newborn, care for a sick or disabled family member, or recover from a serious illness. But they soon realized that even passing unpaid leave would be a slog. “People were calling us communists. They said that this was going to be the end of capitalism as we know it in this country,” Debra Ness, one of the women in that office and president of the National Partnership, recalled with a laugh. “They thought we were nuts.” It took eight years from the first introduction of the FMLA until Congress passed it, only to have President George H. W. Bush veto it twice.
Today congressional legislation is crafted on laptops, and policy ideas are disseminated through tweets. It’s been nearly three decades since President Bill Clinton signed the FMLA into law, but in all that time, we’ve gone without a national guarantee of paid leave, leaving three-quarters of the private workforce without the benefit. Until, perhaps, now.
Advocates and Democratic supporters agree: This is the year that the country enacts a permanent, federal paid family leave program. “It is the year, and it better be the year,” said Ellen Bravo, a founder of Family Values @ Work, who has been working on paid leave as long as Ness.
Barring a total legislative meltdown, advocates believe some form of paid leave is going to be included in the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill, even if the price tag comes down during negotiations. Given the growing consensus around paid leave, it may seem almost unremarkable, perhaps inevitable, that its time has come. But if paid leave does really get signed into law, it will mark an enormous transformation of our safety net — one of the rare moments when the country enacts a new universal benefit.
“A comprehensive, national paid family and medical leave program has the capacity to be as important to American families today as Social Security was in the ’30s,” said Vicki Shabo, senior fellow at the New America foundation. It “will literally touch every household in America at one point or another.” And it will mark a shift in the country’s stance toward the work that goes into taking care of other people, signaling that it is “an important activity that has value, not just to each individual household, but value to the economy and everyone else,” Shabo said. “This is a once-in-a-generation moment to make change.”
Back in the ’90s, when advocates realized there was no path forward for paid leave in Congress, they turned their attention to the states. In 2002 California became the first to pass its own program, and in 2008 New Jersey did the same. Momentum accelerated after the Obama administration embraced paid leave and offered grants to states to study creating paid leave programs.
Nine states and Washington, D.C., have now enacted paid family leave. They’ve proven that it can work and that it doesn’t lead to widespread business failures and economic collapse. Five years after California’s law went into effect, businesses that had warned it would be too costly admitted that it had minimal impact on them. States have also been a laboratory for how to improve the policy. Since 2002, California has increased pay for people who take leave and expanded eligibility. Recent state laws have offered many more weeks than earlier ones.
This was always the plan: to use states to make the case in Congress. “We never had the view that we were going to have 50 state programs,” Bravo said. “Always the goal was to pave the way toward a federal program.” Advocates have also used state-level wins to turn some Democratic lawmakers into champions, particularly those in key leadership positions. One of them is Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, chair of the Senate Finance Committee.
When Magy Viveros was a teenager, she was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a chronic digestive condition. When she was 16, it caused a stroke, which landed her in the hospital for a month as she regained the ability to eat, walk, and speak. Her mother, a longtime agricultural worker in Oregon, spent the entire time by her side, sleeping on chairs and couches in Viveros’s hospital room. But it meant her mother missed an entire month’s worth of pay. “I could see my mom struggling a lot,” Viveros said. Between the unpaid time off and her mother’s divorce, it was unclear if they would have a home to go back to when she got out of the hospital.
Years later, Viveros shared her story with the Oregon legislature as it was enacting its own paid family leave program. “I remember crying,” she said. It was “the first time I felt like I was being seen.” In 2019, she found out the legislature had indeed listened to her: It passed one of the country’s most robust paid leave programs, which includes agricultural workers like her mother.
“In the beginning, Ron Wyden said, ‘Show me that you can do it in Oregon and how you can build the coalition you need to win,’” Bravo recalled. They did. Viveros recently shared her story directly with Wyden over Zoom. The state’s law “shows that this can be done in a way that addresses the concerns of small businesses, for example,” Wyden told me. “We’ve seen how important it is in Oregon.”
It’s now one of his top priorities. At a rally in August, he told the assembled audience, “Our pledge to you is when Congress gets done this fall, family leave, paid family leave, will not be on the cutting-room floor.”
“Now is, in my view, exactly the right time to reorder our priorities so that families and kids get a fair shake,” Wyden told me. “How can it be that we not move now when there is the opportunity to do it?”
A number of other puzzle pieces have fallen into place in the 30 years since unpaid leave passed. The composition of Congress has changed with the election of more women, people of color, and people from working-class backgrounds. “When I came to the Senate, I was the only mom with kids at home,” noted Senator Patty Murray. Now there are “more women in Congress and more middle-class working parents in Congress,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, author of Democrats’ first paid family leave bill, which was introduced in 2013. “The change in the makeup of who is elected has really made a difference.” More and more candidates have run on paid leave and won. In 2020, every Democratic presidential candidate championed a proposal.
Even Republicans have gotten in on the game. Senator Marco Rubio was the first in his party to put forward a paid parental leave plan in 2018, and he’s since been joined by Senator Mitt Romney and Senators Joni Ernst and Mike Lee, who have their own plan. President Donald Trump proposed plans of his own, too. All of them focus solely on new parents, and they either force parents to borrow benefits from Social Security or would have been rolled out through the rickety unemployment insurance system. But it’s still a far cry from the Republicans who used to smear paid leave as socialism and “yuppie empowerment.”
Since the 1980s, families have increasingly relied on two incomes to get by, so paid leave came to be viewed not as a communist plot but something essential to modern life. Poll after poll shows support well over 70 percent, even among Republican voters.
Then came the pandemic. “Everything just went into fast-forward,” said Dawn Huckelbridge, director of Paid Leave for All, a coalition that launched in late 2019 to bring together all paid leave advocacy groups under one umbrella. Congress included paid sick and family leave in its very first response to the crisis, marking the first time the country ever offered a federal guarantee of leave, even if it left millions of people out. Americans watched in real time as families’ finances were shattered by the choice between caring for loved ones — from children home from school to family members sick with COVID to elderly parents going without the help of home health aides — and working for pay. Paid leave morphed from something that would be nice to have to a top, urgent priority.
The pandemic “is a mandate,” Huckelbridge said. “We cannot get through a pandemic and not have learned something from it.”
But as Democrats negotiate with themselves over the reconciliation bill, moderate members who insist on a small price tag have forced Joe Biden’s agenda into a fiscal box. That means some priorities may have to get reduced or cut altogether, and paid leave is potentially as vulnerable as anything else on the agenda. Democrats are considering lowering how much pay workers can expect, possibly even ditching a floor altogether, and allowing some benefits to be routed through private insurers, not government administrators.
Advocates and Democratic supporters speak in unison about what a paid leave program must include in order to get their support. They insist it can’t be whittled down to maternity or parental leave, which would be “insufficient,” Gillibrand said. It also has to include serious illnesses and disabilities of one’s own or a family member’s. The definition of family has to be expansive, and all workers must be eligible, whether gig workers or public-sector employees.
Then there’s the amount of money people who take paid leave can expect. Everyone told me it needs to be progressive, offering the most to the lowest-income workers who won’t be able to take it if they can’t afford to live while they’re away from work. Gillibrand wants to ensure benefits of up to $4,000 a month, with recipients getting 66 percent of their pay, on average.
And it needs to include a long enough time period to be meaningful. “It is essential that it has at least 12 weeks,” Gillibrand said. “Frankly, that’s the minimum.” She and Representative Rosa DeLauro, the co-author of the paid leave bill, are holding firm against any attempt to phase in the benefits for different amounts or different kinds of leave. “I want to show the American public and business community what paid leave looks like, what it feels like,” Gillibrand said. There also have to be enough resources so that a program can actually get up and running.
“It has to be on a large enough scale, enough time and enough money, that it really makes enough of a difference in people’s lives,” Ness said. “You want people to be able to experience the real-world benefit of it, so it becomes tangible and it becomes part of the culture.”
And yet what advocates are demanding is “not a lot,” Bravo noted. Many other countries have far more generous programs. This is, instead, “a minimum, and it’s the least the nation can do.”
As the negotiations over the reconciliation bill enter a fraught, chaotic stage, paid leave advocates are doing a full court press. Ness is constantly talking to people on the Hill and in the White House. Bravo is “mobilizing everybody at full speed,” she said. Advocates are putting people with personal experiences in front of any lawmaker they can. DeLauro is “doing what I usually do,” she told me: “I’m going into campaign mode in terms of phone banking and going and talking to the administration.” Gillibrand said she’s spoken to Wyden “probably a dozen times in the last months” and is in continuous contact with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
“This is the final push,” Huckelbridge said. “We’re leaving it all out on the field. We’re spending every dollar we can. We’re activating every person, using every resource. And we’re in this to win it.”
“It’s a historic moment,” DeLauro said. “You cannot miss the moment. It doesn’t come back.” Murray had the same energy as we ended our phone call. “Let’s get this done,” she told me.