WASHINGTON — Advocates for national paid leave had their hopes crushed Thursday when Democrats eliminated what would have been a landmark policy from President Joe Biden's sprawling social safety net package.
The exclusion leaves the U.S. as one of just six countries without any form of national paid leave and one of eight without national maternity leave, according to data from the World Policy Analysis Center at UCLA.
Biden originally proposed 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave in his economic agenda, which was then whittled down to four weeks, and then completely eliminated after pushback from centrist Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. Senate Democrats needed their entire caucus to be on board due to a lack of support from Republicans.
Biden traveled to Capitol Hill on Thursday morning and met behind closed doors with House Democrats to unveil a new framework that includes money for child care and climate change, but left out paid family leave. The news of the cut from Biden's Build Back Better spending package came Wednesday as the party feverishly worked to narrow down the bill and secure an agreement.
Its removal deals a blow to Democrats who viewed the proposal as a key component of Biden's legislative agenda.
"That is definitely disappointing," said Debra Lancaster, executive director of Rutgers University's Center for Women and Work. "I view it and I think many people view it as one of the foundational elements that's now gone."
Even if Democrats had settled on four weeks of paid parental leave, the U.S. would still lag numerous other countries. The global average for paid maternity leave is 29 weeks, and it is 16 weeks for paid paternity leave, according to the UCLA researchers.
Four weeks would also be significantly less than the 12 weeks of paid parental leave given to federal workers in the U.S. Nine states and the District of Columbia also have paid leave policies on the books.
In the private sector, companies with 50 employees or more are required to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off, thanks to the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. But just 23 percent of private industry workers have access to paid family leave, according to March data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she is still holding out hope that paid leave could make it in the bill.
"There are some things that are not in that I frankly have not given up on," she said at her weekly press conference on Thursday. "I still would like to see paid leave for the babies, if we can't get the rest. But that's still a work in progress, shall we say."
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., one of the policy's most vocal champions who had personally appealed to Manchin to save it, made similar comments on Wednesday.
“Until the bill is printed, I will continue working to include paid leave in the Build Back Better plan," she said.
Hillary Clinton, whose 2016 Democratic presidential campaign proposed 12 weeks of national paid leave, reacted to the news by tweeting, "We really have to do better here."
Paid leave is popular — a May poll commissioned by the advocacy Paid Leave for All Action found that 69 percent of voters would support a federal paid leave policy. The issue was thrust into the spotlight during the pandemic as families with sick children and relatives navigated uncharted territory.
This month, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg defended the policy after some conservative commentators mocked him for taking paternity leave to care for his newborn twins.
"When somebody welcomes a new child into their family and goes on leave to take care of that child, that's not a vacation. It's work. It's joyful, wonderful, fulfilling work, but it is work," Buttigieg said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
The national paid leave proposal would "level the playing field" for a large majority of Americans, said Lancaster.
"That ability to engage in those very intimate and important activities," including bonding with a newborn or caring for a sick or elderly relative, is "really reserved for those who have the resources to do so," she said.