Since President Obama mentioned paid sick leave and paid “maternity” leave in his State of the Union address, an ever-louder chorus of experts and pundits has echoed the need for such family-friendly workplace policies. But despite ironclad evidence of the economic and ethical soundness of these policies, workers are still lacking these protections—thanks to a coordinated effort to stop them by the Corporate Right.
Nearly every other developed country provides these forms of paid leave without damage to their economies; in states and cities that already have paid sick days or paid family leave, the effect on businesses has been either positive or neutral; allowing for paid leave helps close the gender pay gap by keeping women continuously employed as they have children or take time to care for ill relatives (The New York Times reported that “Paid leave raises the probability that mothers return to employment later, and then work more hours and earn higher wages”). Finally, these policies are so popular that even the House GOP leadership has quietly allowed one congressmember to introduce a paid-leave-lite bill that “would permit all workers to use their overtime toward paid time off,” according to a report in The Hill.
Most GOP lawmakers, though, when asked about passing real paid family leave or paid sick days, either say it is a non-starter (Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, recently called it “one more government mandate”) or laugh at the reporter asking the question. Indeed, under both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama there has been zero movement toward federally mandated paid leave. As Margaret Talbot wrote in the New Yorker recently, “The FMLA had all the hallmarks of a first step; the problem was that there was never a second or third one.” Why, despite the evidence for such policies, would the Republicans continue to block them?
The answer is that they—and many Democrats as well—are under constant pressure from an array of business lobby groups and trade associations that are dead set against government mandating any new employment policies that favor workers’ rights. Who are these groups, and why are they working to stop us from having any paid leave?
Working Against Workers
It has nothing to do with business being afraid of having to pay workers more. Workers earn their own sick days in states and cities that have passed paid sick days laws, and research has established that it doesn’t hurt the business’ bottom lines. In California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island, the states where paid family leave is already law, the state pays workers who are on leave out of a small additional payroll deduction. Again, this additional $1 or so per week is coming out of workers’ own wallets, not business owners’ pockets. Business lobby groups, then, oppose these policies out of an ideological, not a pragmatic, commitment to stopping all new workplace regulations that give workers additional rights. We need to understand who they are.
The business association that has gone on record most frequently against paid leave policies in recent months is the National Federation of Independent Business, or the NFIB. Though its branding makes it appear to represent small “independent” business owners, it consistently tacks hard to the right on just about every workplace policy issue that comes before Congress. Want to raise the minimum wage for retail and fast food workers? The NFIB hates that idea. Et cetera. What is more, even though it tells the IRS it is politically neutral, the NFIB accepts major donations from the right-wing Koch Brothers’ Freedom Partners fund. NFIB spokesman Jack Mozloom recently tried to confuse businesses into thinking they would have to pay for paid family leave, telling a reporter from The Hill that “You’re paying twice for the same labor” if business owners must hire a temp worker and also pay the worker who is out on leave.
In the states, the Chamber of Commerce is playing the role of moderate in this debate over paid leave. New Jersey’s Chamber of Commerce initially opposed the state’s policy, which was passed in 2009; that policy has proven to be a boon to workers and cost businesses almost nothing. Still, the New Jersey Chamber recently said it “remains opposed to any government mandate of an arrangement “usually negotiated between an employer and employee.” In Rhode Island, USA Today reports that the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce is “assessing the impact” of the state’s new paid leave policy.
Finally, the Society for Human Resources Management, or SHRM, which claims to represent the views of the 250,000 HR professionals on its membership rolls, has come out against mandatory paid family leave laws in the press. SHRM spokesperson Lisa Horn recently told USA Today that “Her organization supports companies offering paid leave generally, but prefers incentives for employers to offer it, rather than require it.” Although this may sound moderate, SHRM’s opposition to paid family leave is puzzling. SHRM does not explain how exactly paid family leave policies would harm HR professionals. Wouldn’t a policy that reduces employee turnover, results in more equitable pay for women, and keeps employee morale high be a boon for HR professionals as well? And, of course, HR professionals are employees too; they are just as likely as anyone else to welcome a new baby or need to take time off to care for an ill family member.
With both houses of Congress controlled by the GOP, we are unlikely to see movement on national paid sick or family leave policies any time soon. But a handful of states will be considering them this year. As these bills make their way through your state legislature, close observers will note the NFIB, Chamber of Commerce, SHRM, and others weighing in on the debate. Stay tuned to this space for more on these business lobby groups and their anti-worker shenanigans.