Senator Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) claims that her “Workplace Advancement Act” and the “Strong Families Act” would “empower Americans to effectively negotiate wages and provide flexibility for the many families juggling responsibilities at home and at work.” According to experts on workplace policy, however, both bills fall far short of what is needed to actually help working women and their families.
“You can dress something up with a nice title and some good soundbites,” Vivien Labaton, co-founder and co-director of Make it Work, told Ms., “but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s abysmal policy.”
The U.S. lags pitifully behind in the world on equal pay and paid leave policies. The 1963 Fair Pay Act has broad loopholes and weak remedies, while the 1993 federal Family Medical Leave Act offers only unpaid leave, which many women can’t afford to take, and doesn’t even cover 40% of American workers. As a result, the U.S. still has a large wage gap, especially for mothers. Our gender wage gap is greater than many industrialized countries and the U.S. is one of only two countries in the entire world without a national paid parental leave policy.
Senator Fischer’s bills would do little to address either of these problems.
The Workplace Advancement Act prohibits employer retaliation against employees who discuss salary information with their coworkers, but only for the explicit purpose of determining whether the employer provides equal pay for equal work.
“If Senator Fischer and the Trump administration were serious about fair pay,” Labaton said, “their actions would look very, very different.” For instance, this legislation may look more like the Paycheck Fairness Act, last introduced by Senator Barbara Milkulski (D-MD) in 2014, which would close a major loophole in the Equal Pay Act by requiring that employers prove that wage discrepancies are tied to legitimate business qualifications and not gender. The Act would also provide better remedies for unfair pay, facilitate class action equal pay lawsuits against employers, and require the EEOC to collect from employers pay information data regarding the sex, race, and national origin of employees for use in the enforcement of federal laws prohibiting pay discrimination. Senator Fischer’s bill does none of these things.
Fischer’s paid leave bill also does little to help working families. The proposal would give tax credits to employers who provide at least 2 weeks of paid leave to full-time employees. But there is no evidence that tax credits spur employer action on this issue and two weeks is woefully inadequate for new parents.
“Even conservatives acknowledge that the problem with tax credits is that it subsidizes those who would be doing it anyway, therefore it doesn’t get to those who would need it most…people who are low wage and part time,” says Ellen Bravo, one of the foremost experts on paid leave in the country and co-executive director of Family Values @ Work, a network of coalitions in 24 states working to pass family-friendly workplace policies.
A much better alternative for paid parental leave was introduced last week by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT): the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act. Through pooling small contributions from employers and employees similar to workers compensation plans, this Act would expand the Family Medical Leave Act by providing employees 12 weeks of paid leave at 66 percent of their average monthly wage to care for a new child through birth, adoption or foster care, or to tend to a personal or family member’s illness.
This approach has worked successfully in California, New Jersey and Rhode Island for some time, and New York and Washington D.C. recently adopted similar laws. A nationwide social insurance program covering family leave is “good for families but it’s also good for business,” says Bravo, citing a recent Boston Consulting Business study on why paid family leave is good for business.
“For all of our talk about family values, if as a country we actually valued families, then we would pass a national paid family and medical leave program like the FAMILY Act, not one that rewards employers for providing a paltry 2 weeks of leave,” said Labaton. “Just because you slap the name ‘strong families’ on a bill doesn’t mean that you actually care about families.”
Carrie Baker is associate professor of the study of women and gender at Smith College.