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Politics & Government

Sen. Gillibrand isn't ready to give up on paid family leave

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Democrats in Congress still haven't come to an agreement among themselves on the latest version of the spending plan rolled out by President Biden last week. The president had said it was a compromise that all Democrats could support. But now, with a House vote on the bill coming as soon as Tuesday, some Democrats are still pushing to restore some of the programs that were dropped from the bill to appease their more conservative members and reduce the price tag.

One of those programs was paid family and medical leave. Biden's original proposal would have guaranteed workers 12 weeks paid leave to care for a new child or sick family members, a benefit some Americans have access to through their employers but which millions do not. But with no votes to spare to pass the bill in the Senate and West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin opposed, the proposal was dropped.

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand says she is not ready to give up. She's been seen lobbying Senator Manchin in an effort to get paid leave back into the bill, and she's with us now to hopefully tell us more about that. Senator, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: My pleasure.

MARTIN: Can you tell us anything about where things stand? Is there any reason to hope that paid leave could get back into the bill?

GILLIBRAND: Yes, there's still reason to hope. I've been talking with Joe Manchin over the weekend, sending him information and data that he'd asked for earlier in the week. He has a number of concerns that he wanted to learn more about, and I've been able to give him those answers. But, you know, we still have maybe a few more days before this deal is finally finalized, and I believe that until the ink is dry that we have more and more time to urge Senator Manchin to look at the economic benefits for the country, for families, for businesses. He was very worried about strengthening Social Security. And one of the best pieces of information I had for him is that when you have paid leave, parents in particular are much more likely to go back to work after having a child or adopting a child if they have paid leave. In fact, they're 40% more likely to go back to work if they have paid leave, which means they're buying into Social Security when they're back at work. So if you want to strengthen it, best way to do it is make sure you have paid leave.

MARTIN: So I was going to ask you about that. Was his core objection is - the overall price tag? Is it his objection to paid leave per se? Or does he have some kind of - is it, like, the overall price tag that's scaring him?

GILLIBRAND: It's not the price tag. It's more about how are you going to frame the program as one that is self-sustaining? He likes the idea of it having employer and employee contributions - that is, it's something that pays for itself. And that is how we wrote the Family Act, as an earned benefit initially. We've been negotiating with the White House and with Senator Manchin for many months on a version of paid leave that would just be funded from the government that would not be a buy-in. And so he was somewhat uncomfortable with that as a structure. But there's lots of ways to pay for this bill, and there's ways to have employer and employee involvement. And I've begun to offer different versions of that to him.

MARTIN: I just want to throw some numbers out here. For - you certainly know this better than anybody in the U.S. because you've been trying to pass legislation on this issue for years. But I just want to throw some numbers out there for people who may not be familiar with this. The United States is 1 of 6 countries in the world to not offer any form of national paid leave. Globally, the average paid maternity leave is 29 weeks. And 174 countries offer at least up to four weeks of paid medical leave. That's according to UCLA's World Policy Analysis Center. So the question, you know, I have for you as somebody who's been involved in this for so long and presumably heard all the arguments, why do you think that is? Like, why do you think the United States is such an outlier in this area?

GILLIBRAND: I think our economy is structured differently than a lot of countries around the globe. I think the purpose of paid leave in America will be to make sure all people who want to be working can be working, to make sure that families have time to meet the needs of loved ones when they're ill, sick, dying or having a new child. And I think there's probably some data that needs to be developed about worldwide views towards women at work.

Some countries offer lots of paid leave because they don't expect women to come back into the workplace for a long time. A lot of countries don't expect them to come back into the workplace until they're on year two of having a child or later. And, in fact, some countries don't even have a robust day care program. So they - there is no infrastructure, for example, for a woman to take three months of leave and then go back to work. It's not a simple answer, I guess, is my response. It's not as simple as you think. It's not easy to be a woman working in lots of places.

But the way we want paid leave, ultimately, is for all caregivers. And we want it to be gender neutral. We want it for all life events, and we want to start at three months because at a minimum, that's the right amount of time for an infant. If you are a woman who has actually given birth, you need time to heal, and you need time to be able to, if you want to nurse, to nurse your child, bond with your child. And we want that for both parents because all studies show that children thrive if they have a primary caregiver or a parent near them in these early months for brain formation and for socialization.

MARTIN: Just focusing on - just on your point about wanting the bill to be gender neutral - and, in fact, you know, around the world, there are many countries that offer paternity leave as well. But just speaking of the gendered aspect of this, we know that the pandemic has had a major impact on women's participation in paid work. I assume that you talked with your colleagues about this, and I just wonder if that's part of the discussion as well. Do they seem to see that connection?

GILLIBRAND: Yes. I think 49 Democrats see that extremely vividly. It's - 5 million women lost their jobs during the pandemic because a parent - and more often than not, it was mothers - had to stay home with children who had to learn remotely or because day care centers were closed. And so the disproportionate impact on women because of the failure of the care economy to survive the pandemic and the lack of paid leave was real. So we need to invest in day care so it's affordable for everyone so people can be working to grow the economy. That's part of Joe Biden's Build Back Better package. We have affordable day care investments in this package, and we have universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds in this package.

So there's a three-legged stool of this care economy, and it's affordable day care, universal pre-K and paid leave. And the one piece that's missing - and the stool will still fall without this leg - is paid leave because there's nowhere to put a child between 0 and 3. And a parent wants to be with that child desperately, both, if it's a birth mother, physically because she needs to be and wants to be, but also that bonding is essential for that child's development. So it's an outrage that we as a Congress assume that that parent should quit his or her job to stay home.

And then the facts are that the likelihood of getting rehired quickly is not there. It's hard to get rehired, and the likely of getting rehired right away is smaller. So again, you're 40% more likely to go right back to work after three months if you have paid leave. That helps the economy grow. So yes, we've been talking about this. And these are arguments I've made to Senator Manchin because obviously families in West Virginia need paid leave, too. And businesses need it, and the economies need it.

We also know that in states that have had paid leave, it's had a hugely beneficial effect for the businesses. Ninety percent of businesses in California said it had no negative impact on their bottom line or positive impact, and 99% of those businesses said it had been approved retention and morale. So it's a pro-business idea. It's a pro-worker idea. It's something that allows all workers who want to be working to be working at their fullest capability, and it allows women in particular who tend to be the caregivers to be able to thrive in their families and in the workplace.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, as we said earlier, time seems to be running out on the spending plan in Congress. If you're not able to get paid back into this bill, what's the next step?

GILLIBRAND: Keep working. I'm not going to give up getting it in this bill because, you know, if Senator Manchin really wants some kind of employer-employee contribution, some kind of earned benefit, one of the best ways we could do that is just near what we've already done for the military and the federal workforce. And that's a bill Senator Manchin voted for three times. So that is for parental leave. It's the first great step on what a paid leave policy could look like, something he's already for. So that is something - and that is written as an earned benefit. You have to work at that job for a year before you get it. And so that might be our first step to getting him to yes. And I hope that I can meet with Senator Manchin just a few more times before this deal is done to show him that if he wants a paid leave in the way that I think he wants it, now is the moment, and that moment will not come around again for a while.

MARTIN: That was Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York. Senator Gillibrand, thank you. so much for talking with us today.

GILLIBRAND: It's my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.