Kamala Harris Announces Ambitious 6-Month Paid Family Leave Plan

Advocates hope this will finally get candidates talking about a key economic and health policy.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) announced a plan on Monday that would guarantee workers up to six months of paid family and medical leave, the most generous such policy proposal in the Democratic presidential field.

Harris is unveiling her plan, part of what she calls a “children’s agenda,” as her 2020 campaign is struggling. The proposal is more aspirational than practical, as six months of leave exceeds anything currently under consideration or on offer in the U.S. ― the only developed country that doesn’t guarantee new mothers paid time off.

Still, by calling attention to the issue, Harris could help bring paid leave to prominence on the 2020 agenda, from which it’s been largely absent.

“I hope this is a turning point. I have been deeply disappointed in how little discussion there has been,” said Vicki Shabo, senior fellow for paid leave policy and strategy at New America, a liberal think tank. Shabo has been frustrated that women’s economic issues have gotten short shrift during the 2020 campaign so far ― barring a few questions on the pay gap.

Perhaps Harris’ agenda will move the needle, Shabo said. “This might start a domino effect among candidates.”

Paid maternity and paternity leave and time off for caregiving are not just women’s issues, of course. And as the population ages, these concerns will become even more critical to working Americans. But the 2020 candidates have forgone the conversation on leave to focus on single-payer “Medicare for all” and other health insurance issues ― perhaps forgetting that in order for working Americans to access health care, they’ll need the time off to go to the doctor or recover from medical procedures.

“Guaranteeing six months of paid leave will bring us closer to economic justice for workers and ensures newborn children or children who are sick can get the care they need from a parent without thrusting the family into upheaval,” Harris said in a statement.

Under Harris’ proposal, workers who make $75,000 or less would receive their full salary while taking time off to deal with a serious health condition; caring for an infant or newly adopted child; addressing military caregiving and leave; or addressing domestic violence, harassment, sexual assault or stalking. 

The leave could be taken as a block of time or intermittently, as needs arise. Harris’ policy would also guarantee job protections to workers and offer support to small businesses that must give workers time off. 

She’d pay for the leave with a payroll tax shared by employers and employees, as well as by levying penalties on companies that fail to close their pay gaps (an earlier Harris proposal).

All the Democrats vying for the presidential nomination who are members of Congress have co-sponsored the Family Act, a bill that would give workers 12 weeks of paid time off. The Family Act has been kicking around for the past few years; Harris is the first Democrat in the race to go significantly beyond it.

Her proposal was influenced by paid leave policies in a handful of states that have already learned a critical lesson about wage replacement. For example, California’s paid leave law, in effect for more than a decade, initially only offered 55% wage replacement. That made it next to impossible for low-income workers to take time off. The state has since increased wage replacement. The lesson: If you don’t give low-wage workers most of their income, they won’t take the time off.

Six months of leave in the United States is still pretty much unheard of, even though research has found it to be a good amount of time for moms and babies to be home together or for children to be home with a loving caregiver. 

“This is the first time we’ve seen a major presidential candidate, but also a U.S. Senator, talk about a family leave policy that is supported by medical evidence,” said Katie Bethell, executive director at Paid Leave for the United States, an advocacy group. The American Pediatric Association, Bethell noted, recommends six months of leave.

Bethell said her group has spoken to all the Democratic contenders and offered Harris’ team help in crafting its policy. Polling they’ve done shows that paid family leave is an important issue to Democratic voters ― particularly Black and Hispanic voters.

Putting a paid leave policy under the umbrella of a children’s agenda is significant, Bethell said. Half of families with children at home use paid leave for reasons beyond taking care of new babies, according to Bethell. “They’re using it to take care of seriously ill kids or for income replacement when a parent is seriously ill,” she said.

Harris also uses an inclusive definition of “family member” that goes beyond blood relatives ― a critical issue for LGBTQ workers in particular.

The children’s agenda also includes a pitch to expand access to high-quality preschool, an effort to cut child poverty and a proposal to create a federal Bureau of Children and Family Justice.