Tax bill must main­tain paid fam­ily leave pol­icy

Woonsocket Call - - Opinion - By DEB FIS­CHER Spe­cial To The Wash­ing­ton Post Fis­cher, a Repub­li­can, rep­re­sents Ne­braska in the U.S. Sen­ate.

WASH­ING­TON — Congress has a chance to make his­tory by en­act­ing the first na­tion­wide paid fam­ily leave pol­icy as part of the Sen­ate tax re­form bill.

While many work­ing adults have been busy rais­ing chil­dren, our na­tion's ag­ing pop­u­la­tion has cre­ated a dual strain as those adults' care­giv­ing du­ties have ex­panded to look­ing af­ter el­derly rel­a­tives. Life is stress­ful for fam­i­lies try­ing to make it all work. It can feel like there sim­ply aren't enough hours in a day.

For four years in the Sen­ate, I've been work­ing on the plan to ad­dress this chal­lenge that was in­cluded in our tax bill. My pro­posal aims to in­crease Amer­i­cans' ac­cess to paid fam­ily leave while re­main­ing cog­nizant of the re­al­i­ties of run­ning a busi­ness — es­pe­cially a small one.

This plan uses a tax credit to en­cour­age em­ploy­ers to of­fer work­ers up to 12 weeks of paid fam­ily leave. Us­ing what I call the "car­rot ap­proach," the pol­icy gives busi­nesses an in­cen­tive to give em­ploy­ees more flex­i­bil­ity when they face fam­ily wor­ries.

This is the kind of paid-leave pro­gram the Amer­i­can peo­ple sup­port. A Pew Re­search Cen­ter study re­leased in March looked at peo­ple who have taken, or wanted to take, leave in the past two years. Par­tic­i­pants said that hav­ing paid leave for fam­ily or med­i­cal rea­sons was more help­ful than any other ben­e­fit or work ar­range­ment. The find­ings showed that 87 per­cent of par­tic­i­pants some­what or strongly fa­vor a tax break for em­ploy- ers who pro­vide paid fam­ily leave. That's ex­actly what my mea­sure does.

Larger cor­po­ra­tions are al­ready of­fer­ing paid fam­ily leave, es­pe­cially to C-suite and high-salaried em­ploy­ees. Lead­ers of big busi­nesses re­al­ize that this par­tic­u­lar ben­e­fit can in­crease pro­duc­tiv­ity and help them re­tain top tal­ent. But a fam­ily-run fast-food fran­chise in Ne­braska doesn't have the same means to of­fer paid leave as a global tech com­pany. And com­pa­nies al­ready pro­vid­ing paid fam­ily leave to their ex­ec­u­tives and man­agers don't al­ways ex­tend the ben­e­fit to mid­dle-to-lower-in­come or hourly work­ers.

My plan tar­gets the cat­e­gory of work­ers who com­monly lack ac­cess to paid fam­ily leave by in­sti­tut­ing a $72,000 yearly pay cap for em­ployee el­i­gi­bil­ity. Ad­di­tion­ally, this pro­posal would ex­tend to those em­ployed by mom-and-pop busi­nesses who may not have ac­cess to leave un­der the Fam­ily and Med­i­cal Leave Act, and it is tai­lored to part- time work­ers. Em­ploy­ers in Wash­ing­ton D.C., or in states such as Cal­i­for­nia and New York, where paid fam­ily leave is al­ready re­quired, would be able to build upon ex­ist­ing pro­grams to ex­pand ac­cess.

Men and women can use their leave to take an hour, a day or weeks off to care for a fam­ily mem­ber. They can take ma­ter­nity or pa­ter­nity leave to bond with a bi­o­log­i­cal or adopted new­born. With this op­tion, fewer Amer­i­can work­ers would have to for­feit the wages they need to pro­vide for their loved ones.

This plan is a mid­dle ground that re­spects both fam­i­lies and busi­nesses. Em­ploy­ers who take ad­van­tage of the pro­gram are en­ti­tled to a tax credit of up to 25 per­cent of wages re­placed — a sig­nif­i­cant in­cen­tive. There are no gov­ern­ment man­dates or new fed­eral pro­grams, the bur­dens of which usu­ally pro­duce costs for both em­ploy­ers and em­ploy­ees.

Cre­at­ing a way for small com­pa­nies to more eas­ily pro­vide paid fam­ily leave will tip the bal­ance to­ward broad adop­tion of this fam­ily-friendly pol­icy.

Still, be­cause it's set up as a twoyear pi­lot pro­gram, once the pro­vi­sion is im­ple­mented there will be an op­por­tu­nity to gather data and eval­u­ate whether the credit works. Nei­ther fam­i­lies nor busi­nesses should be stuck in some­thing that doesn't work for them. My pro­posal does not cre­ate an open-ended, ex­pen­sive pro­gram with­out an ex­pi­ra­tion date and with­out know­ing whether it meets its goals. It is a re­spon­si­ble way to move for­ward.

Crit­ics of this pro­posal should rec­og­nize the step we can take here. Why stick to the sta­tus quo when we have a vi­able op­tion that could make a pos­i­tive dif­fer­ence for our fam­i­lies, right now? We know the con­ver­sa­tion on this im­por­tant is­sue is not go­ing away.

A re­cent Ernst & Young sur­veyof full-time work­ers in eight coun­tries re­vealed that paid fam­ily leave is more im­por­tant to mil­len­ni­als than to gen­er­a­tions be­fore them. Eighty-three per­cent of those sur­veyed are more likely to join a com­pany that pro­vides this ben­e­fit. Our fu­ture work­force wants to see ac­tion. The plan passed by the Sen­ate should pre­vail in con­fer­ence.

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