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LGBTQ advocates regroup on paid parental leave after Biden's safety net bill stalls

LGBTQ advocates hope that polls showing broad support for paid parental leave will create momentum for legislative action.

The Rev. Richard Weinberg, an Episcopalian rector in Washington, D.C., was surprised to find that his diocese didn’t have a policy for paid parental leave when he began preparing to adopt a child with his partner last year.

The church allowed three months of specifically paid maternal leave, four weeks more than D.C. law mandates. But unlike some of the district’s provisions, the church’s policy didn’t address people, including LGBTQ couples, who seek to have children through adoption, surrogacy or other means.

After he and another priest petitioned the diocese for a policy that included all methods of starting a family, the church agreed to give him 12 weeks of paid parental leave once his adoption is finalized. But it took numerous discussions with senior leadership and his congregation to figure out what would work for them, as well as for him.

“Without a policy in place or any law to fall back on, the burden was on me to fight for myself and what I thought was fair and appropriate,” Weinberg said.

The Rev. Richard Mosson Weinberg.
The Rev. Richard Mosson Weinberg.St. Margaret's Episcopal Church

Weinberg’s experience is common in the LGBTQ community, advocacy groups and think tanks studying the issue say. According to a 2020 study by the Census Bureau, same-sex couples are more than four times as likely as opposite-sex couples to adopt children — and more than twice as likely to foster children. But the policies vary by employer and are applied inconsistently, according to studies of the issue.

Advocates have called for more inclusive and widespread parental leave policies, and came close with a provision in President Joe Biden’s $1.7 trillion social safety net bill, which would have mandated all U.S. employers provide workers with four weeks of paid parental leave. But talks on the legislation collapsed after Sen. Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat from West Virginia, announced in December that he wouldn’t vote for the bill in part over funding for new programs,denying his Democratic colleagues the 50 votes they would need to pass the legislation under special budget rules.

LGBTQ advocates hope that polls showing broad support for paid parental leave will create momentum for legislative action. Eighty-four percent of voters — including majorities of Democrats, independents and Republicans — support a paid family leave policy, according to a 2018 study from the National Partnership for Women and Families, an advocacy group focused on the issue.

While 12 weeks of leave are available to many new parents under the Family and Medical Leave Act, that time off is unpaid under the law, making it financially unviable for lower-income people. Paid leave through employers or states is available to only about a quarter of Americans, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data in 2021, and just a handful of states and Washington, D.C., have implemented policies themselves.

The programs that are available aren't distributed equally, with 12 percent of private industry workers in the lowest income quartile receiving paid family leave and 37 percent of workers in the highest quartile having access, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Policies also don’t cover sexual orientations and gender identities equally. A 2018 survey by the Human Rights Campaign found fewer than half of LGBTQ respondents said their employers' leave policies were LGBTQ-inclusive. Respondents also expressed concern about potentially outing themselves or encountering workplace discrimination when asking for leave, the survey found.

In addition, LGBTQ people face distinct financial considerations in starting families. The community is more likely to face economic hurdles like housing instability, unemployment and food insecurity, to begin with, indicating a greater need for social safety net programs, according to the progressive think tank the Center for American Progress. Then there are the additional expenses associated with various means of bringing children into the home.

Those costs can be high, with fees for adoption easily running into the tens of thousands of dollars, according to federal data, while in vitro fertilization can average well north of $10,000 and surrogacy often has a six-figure price tag.

“LGBTQ-plus parents often have additional needs for paid leave,” Julie Kruse, the director of federal policy at the advocacy group Family Equality, said. “Our families can be expensive to form — for people that require trans fertility services, for people using alternative reproductive technologies, even those going through the processes of fostering and adopting.”

A further issue is how paid leave policies affect employees’ perceived commitment to their job, said Richard Petts, a sociology professor at Ball State University. Taking leave can be stigmatized, causing employees to worry they'll face a disadvantage at work if they take time off. When those policies are implemented inconsistently in the workplace, it only exacerbates the problem, he said.

Expanded access would help correct the issue and also be of special benefit to marginalized groups, Petts said.

“The U.S. actually has this really golden opportunity to take the lead in providing and showing what an equitable leave policy could look like,” Petts said. “Having a policy that says this is an individual entitlement really is equitable in the truest sense.”

The Covid pandemic, meanwhile, has only heightened financial concerns as it takes a toll on families across the country, Kruse said, adding that she hopes that could influence voters’ opinions and create momentum for a national policy.

“Knowing that we have paid time off without fear of losing our job is just a huge relief, and all families deserve to feel that, so I think there's going to be a lot of pressure,” Kruse said. “There's only so much more families can take.”

Support for legislation

For Rep. Angie Craig, D-Minn., the issue is personal. Craig, who co-chairs the Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus and is one of two LGBTQ parents in Congress, said the complexities that same-sex couples face in becoming parents have shown the importance of a uniform paid leave policy.

Image: Angie Craig
Rep. Angie Craig, D-Minn., shows a picture of her grandson Noah on her phone as she speaks at the Capitol about proposed investments in children to reduce economic disparity on Dec. 14, 2021.Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

LGBTQ people face a wide range of barriers when starting families, Craig said. One such circumstance occurred when her wife adopted their first child — even though she was married to the primary adoptee, Craig had to file for second-parent adoption, a practice in place in many states.

Across the nation, nearly 20 states, primarily led by Republicans, have not passed protections against discrimination on the basis of gender or sexuality in adoption, according to the Movement Advancement Project, a think tank focused on promoting equal rights.

Craig said including four weeks of leave in the Build Back Better Act was a step in the right direction, although she and many other progressives had initially called for 12 weeks. She said she plans to continue to advocate for expansive paid leave legislation.

“Paid family leave makes sense for all families,” Craig said. “We shouldn't be putting barriers in place for LGBTQ individuals who want to have families, and that's what we've done in the history of the nation.”

Before negotiations on the bill stalled, Manchin opposed including 12 weeks of paid family leave, saying he preferred standalone legislation, rather than the sweeping bill, for such a significant policy change and expressing concerns about the funding of the broader package. He also expressed concern that Americans would abuse some benefits like paid leave and the child tax credit.

"I believe in family leave, I believe people should have that opportunity," Manchin said on MSNBC in November. "Can't we find a better position for this and do this in a bipartisan process that works?”

As a result, Democrats proposed the four-week provision after advocates pushed back on cutting the benefit entirely.

Progressive lawmakers view passage of such a provision as a necessary and historic opportunity amid favorable views on the subject, including among some businesses, after previous efforts have failed.

Nearly 71 percent of small companies surveyed in New York and New Jersey were in favor of paid parental leave in fall 2020, according to a recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also supports paid family leave, although it opposed the social spending legislation, according to Marc Freedman, the chamber’s vice president of employment policy.

“The chamber continues to believe there is a fiscally responsible, bipartisan approach to providing a federal paid family leave benefit,” Freedman said in a statement to NBC News. “We believe that such a deal can be forged, but this partisan reconciliation bill is certainly not the vehicle to achieve a sensible solution to making sure paid family leave is available on a nationwide basis.”

Weinberg, the D.C. rector, said national legislation would prevent others from having to go through what he experienced in preparing to adopt a child.

While thankful for the changes his diocese made, he said he hopes to see a national standard. Having a child is a significant change for any family, and the opportunity to bond is essential, he said.

“To be able to continue to earn an income without having to put your life and your financial health on hold in order to have a family is just such a basic right,” Weinberg said. “So having legislation in place and employers who are seeking to happily compensate people when they’re starting their family would be a huge benefit to Americans.”

Now, Weinberg and his partner are navigating the application process for a 10-year-old boy from Colombia they hosted for five weeks last year. They hope to have the adoption finalized by summer.