Opinion

Honoring 25 years of family leave

I’m often asked why I’ve elected to run for public office as an independent rather than as a member of a political party. For me, the answer is simple: I believe that good ideas come from both the sides of the aisle, and prefer a path that allows me to focus on the people of Maine rather than a singular political party. When faced with two options that don’t reflect my perspective, I seek a third approach.

That type of thinking defines not only my campaigns, but also my approach to public policy, because some of our best programs have been created when leaders from both parties chose to reject two unacceptable outcomes and find a better solution. That philosophy is the inspiration behind the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), a bill that had 46 bipartisan Senate cosponsors at the time it was passed into law, and which celebrated its 25th anniversary last month.

The FMLA grants full-time employees at companies with 50 or more employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for family and medical reasons. Prior to this law, workers had to choose between responding to personal situations, like the birth of a child or a serious illness in the family, and showing up to work – because if they missed work for these events, they had no legal protections. The FMLA remedied that situation, giving many Americans the ability to take care of their families without fear of losing their job.

For the last quarter-century, the FMLA has aimed to ensure that no one has to worry about leaving a vulnerable loved one (e.g., a newborn baby or an ailing parent) alone in a time of need. But even though the FMLA has helped countless families, it does contain important and inherent flaws – namely, the fact that the leave is unpaid. Many low-wage workers lack the means to utilize the leave allowed under FMLA, because taking time off to attend to family responsibilities meant they would not receive a paycheck. That forces difficult decisions for far too many families, and undermines the overall goal of FMLA.

This is an opportunity for us to find a better path forward, and we certainly have lots of inspiration to draw from: most of our global competitors provide some type of paid leave policy for these types of events. If we look at our friends and allies around the world, we can see that paid leave policies aren’t drains on their economies – they’re boosts! By supporting American workers, our nation will be strengthening our world-class workforce; by giving them peace of mind in their family lives, we can boost overall productivity.

So as we mark 25 years of the FMLA, now is the perfect time to advance new policies that update our antiquated paid leave laws – for example, the Strong Families Act. This bipartisan legislation, which I co-authored with Republican Senator Deb Fischer of Nebraska, establishes a tax credit to encourage employers to voluntarily offer at least four weeks of paid leave. We’re making some progress – a version of the bill was included in the tax cut bill and signed into law last year. (As an aside, I should note that it was one of the few provisions in the tax bill that I supported.) But while this is a positive first step, it should be just that – the first step. There is so much more to be done, and I hope that we can continue to work across party lines to carve a new path forward for America’s workforce.

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