The Fight for Paid Family Leave Unites Lawmakers

Roughly three in four American workers do not have access to paid family leave. This is something a new bipartisan group in Congress is trying to change. Representatives Stephanie Bice and Chrissy Houlahan speak with Michel Martin about their renewed effort to push this over the line.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CHIEF INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: And next, we’re going to turn to the ongoing struggle for paid family leave in the United States. Roughly three out of four American workers do not have access to this benefit. Something a new bipartisan group in Congress is trying to change. Representative Stephanie Bice and Chrissy Houlahan join Michel Martin to discuss their renewed effort to push this across the line.


MICHEL MARTIN, CONTRIBUTOR: Thank you, Christiane. Representative Stephanie Bice, Representative Chrissy Houlahan, thank you both so much for talking with us.

REP. STEPHANIE BICE (R-OK): Thank you for having us.

REP. CHRISSY HOULAHAN (D-PA): Nice to be here.

MARTIN: You’ve gotten a lot of attention for the op-ed that you wrote and the work that you are about to embark on, trying to get a paid family leave policy in place, something that the U.S. does not have in which we are an outlier for most countries that are as well — have — as well-developed economies and are as wealthy as we. So, the first thing I was interested in is are you surprised by how much attention your work is getting? Representative Houlahan, maybe you want to start.

HOULAHAN: Sure, I suppose I’m somewhat surprised because this has been something that has been you know a need for decades. And a lot of people on both sides of the aisle have taken a shot at making solutions, at proposing solutions for this. But I do think that the reason that it’s getting traction and attention right now is perhaps it’s time has come. There is an opportunity — Representative Bice and I represent both Democrats and Republicans from both sides of the aisle who are really committed to trying to make this thing work this time. And we’re putting together what we’re calling a working group rather than a caucus to make sure we are actually working on this solution. It’s been 30 years since the FMLA or the Family Medical Leave Act was passed into law. And really, for the last 30 years or three decades, there hasn’t been significant progress on this issue of family leave. And so, its time, I think, has come.

MARTIN: Representative Bice, I think one of the reasons, though, that the work, even though you are just starting, has gotten so much attention is that the stories we tend to hear about Congress are really about how toxic it is and how polarized it is and how people are afraid. At least people who want Congress to do something are really afraid that it just isn’t possible, really, to make much progress on many things. And so, Representative Bice, I just want to ask, since you’re the newest of the duo to join Congress, I was wondering, are you at all worried about that yourself?

BICE: You know, I think the general public is begging for bipartisanship. You know, a lot of things that we see on social media or with our local media tends to be somewhat partisan. And so, this is an opportunity for Chrissy and I to really dive into a very important issue that affects millions of families across the country and try to find a bipartisan solution to it. You know, 23 percent of the families in this country have access to paid family leave. But there are 63 percent of families with children that are both working. And so, this sort of disconnect really, I think, opens our eyes to the idea that we have got to move forward in some sort of bipartisan fashion. You know, Republicans often talk about being pro- family, and this is just another way for us to show that we truly are trying to work for the family of the American people.

MARTIN: Why is the U.S. such an outlier in this regard? I mean, you know, Americans pride themselves on innovation in all spheres. You know, obviously I want to talk about what you want to do next but I am interested —


MARTIN: — in why you think we are where we are now?

HOULAHAN: I think the devil is in the details, you know, I think that we can agree that this is something that we should address and, frankly, that we should address long ago. My oldest child is 30 and so it isn’t lost on me that she has grown her whole life without really significant change in this particular area. And it isn’t lost on most people, men and women, that we are well and significantly behind other countries, similar countries to ours in terms of the way we reached out and embrace our families. I do think though that we can all agree that this is something that we need to solve for. But the differences in how we solve for it is, I think, always been a stumbling block. There have been lots and lots of proposals given by lots of lots of people. But I am really hopeful now that we are in kind of an inflection point where honestly COVID, sort of, opened our eyes. Open the eyes of most people to understanding what was going on in people’s homes, literally, as they were wrestling with the issues of taking care of their families. Not just our children but, frankly, themselves and their older parents and that, sort of, responsibility. And so, it’s that anything changed with COVID, we were always doing these things, but I think it became much more visible and much more obvious to people. And now, I would also say with the Congress being as relatively speaking evenly divided, the Republicans in the majority, the Democrats in the minority in the House and the opposite in the Senate, maybe now is the time, really, to you know, put this stuff together and to figure out where the optimized solution will be on this.

MARTIN: Representative Bice, I’ll got you first on this. Do you see a fundamental philosophical difference between the parties on this in the way that there has been on other issues. Like, for example, on something like, you know, economic support for people who are under resourced. You know, Democrats tend to be more interested in giving direct aid, Republicans tend to be more interested and using the tax code and things like the Earned Income Tax Credit. On the matter of childcare, do you see some kind of fundamental, philosophical difference that you need to bridge?

BICE: You know, I think if you look at some of the prior proposals that have been put forward on the Republican side, they tend to be private sector focused. And many of the proposals that have been put forward in the Democratic side tend to be government subsidy focused. And so, that’s really where I think you see a delineation between the two parties is, you know, how they are approach to this. At the end of the day, we all want the same thing. We want to find a solution to paid family leave. How we get there as — was mentioned earlier, is in the details. But I do think there’s a possibility for us to come together and find a isolation that works for everyone.

MARTIN: But — I mean, I guess that’s what I’m asking you is — does everybody believe that paid family leave is something that the country should aspire to? Some sort of generalized system because just look, you all have been in politics. There was a time when — I know, I certainly have been around long enough when a lot of people would say women with young children should just not work. Does anybody still believe that?

BICE: Michel, I’ve been a member of the state legislature in Oklahoma for six years, and now a member of Congress, I have not one time had anyone come to me and make those remarks. As a matter of fact, when I was in the legislature and now in Congress, I have had so many people reach out to me, thanking me for looking into this issue. Taking on this particular policy area because it is so important. So, no. I think I mentioned earlier, 63 percent of households with children have two parents working. It is a predominantly dual income country. And so, we have to look at these policies that would allow for our parents to both continue to work outside the home.

MARTIN: Representative Houlahan, what about you?

HOULAHAN: I agree with Stephanie. I don’t see that, sort of, pushback really coming from certainly anybody in my community or the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and certainly within the Congress and the body itself. I think the issue right now is FMLA, what we have historically, you know, looked towards as being what we have put forward in the form of a solution is basically a guarantee to some people. Not all people are actually eligible for it. That they will be able to have their jobs protected and they will be able to return to it. It is not any sort of form of paid leave. And so, this is what I think that our economy is demanding. I think our businesses are interested in it. I know that our workforce is interested in it, both me and women. We were able to successfully pushed forward legislation that allows all federal employees to be able to have paid leave. We’ve been able to push forward successful legislation that now allows all uniformed personnel, both moms and dad, to be able to take paid leave. And so, this is — its time. And I don’t think that there’s really any appreciable pushback that this is something that is not deserved or something that’s not needed for us to be able to be competitive in this economy. Both the individual workers and also the, you know, the businesses and economy itself needs to be competitive. The other thing I’d like to go back to really quickly on, you know, the difference, you know, historic difference between Republicans and Democrats on this, is yes, we tend to kind of see one side of being, sort of, with the business solutions and the other one is, sort of, being with the government solutions. But I believe there is an in between. And I think we have seen that in the sense that governor — I’m sorry, that President Trump put into his budget, a family leave component that had, you know, a kind of a creative way of paying for it. As did President Biden, and I’m certainly hoping that he will do the same again. And, you know, if everybody steps back, and Stephanie and I are committed to doing that. And it opens our eyes and it opens our ears and kind of looks at all the solutions and tries to shed, you know, whose idea it was and why we are very responding negatively or positively to it, maybe there’s a solution in the in between.

MARTIN: What is it that you are most — what do you considered to be the most dire consequence of the fact that the U.S. does not currently have some kind of comprehensive system of paid family leave? In the United States, a lot of people seemed to be concerned about the fact that how did they cover — how do they cover for their employees when they are not there? Obviously, people who work at large corporations which have, you know, lots of employees can figure out how to backfill and things of that sort. But I think what I tend to hear is that people who have smaller businesses are worried about how they can keep their businesses going. Is that — you know, and still accommodate workers who need to take time off. Is that what you hear from your constituents? Like, what is to real pain point that you hear? Representative Bice, you want to start?

BICE: Sure. You know, those are considerations that we’ll be looking at. Certainly, many corporations across the country are actually offering some form of paid family leave. I have shared my story when I had my daughters, who are now 18 and 21. I worked for a company, not a large company, but that had a short-term disability policy in place for me. Should I get pregnant and a half a child and they provided me support for eight weeks and then subsequently about four months with my second daughter. These are things that, you know, a majority of moms did not have 20 years ago. You know, the thing that I think it’s important to recognize though is that only 25 percent of working families have some sort of access to paid family leave right now, either through their companies or others. And so, it’s a small number. Many of those are large corporations. And so, we do have to take into consideration how our smaller businesses will be impacted and work with them. Work with the Chambers of Commerce across the country to figure out, you know, what makes sense that they’re not at a disadvantage within their small businesses.

MARTIN: Representative Houlahan, one of the things that I tend to hear is that the cost of childcare for the consumer is so high, that it’s just prohibitive for people —


MARTIN: — in certain jobs. I mean, don’t you hear this? I speak from teachers, for example, teachers, particularly younger teachers at the beginning of their career say, you know what, it’s going to cost me as much to take care of my child in daycare or have a caregiver at home than I make at work.

HOULAHAN: That was the exact situation that I was in when I was young lieutenant and pregnant and had my first child, is that I not only had six weeks of leave and also had six months of a waiting list for based childcare but it would’ve taken my entire paycheck to pay for base childcare. And so, the decisions that we make as individuals therefore affect the businesses and organizations that we work for. I chose to separate from the military. I think other people make choices to separate, as you’re mentioning, from education or from teaching for that reason. We cannot afford for our workforce to be doing exactly that. We need to make sure we are building a workforce that is resilient and that is able to return to work if they indeed would like to work. And I think that is one of the things, big or small companies need to acknowledge is that this is something that is the right thing to do. It definitely has its costs, you know, lots of different kinds of costs. But I think that there is tons and tons of research and study that even the smallest of small businesses will end up with retention that is much, much higher. Happiness, in terms of their employee satisfaction and their willingness to stay in a company and not have to be retrained and retooled and, you know, have to rehire people. And so, we do have to take a look really carefully, as Stephanie mentioned, with the chambers and with the small businesses to make sure we are being sensible and sensitive to that. But the reality is, here in this office, we are 18-person small business. And we have a 12-week paid leave policy here, for men and women, because we really believe that that’s the right thing to do and we believe that we will end up benefiting from it as an organization because of it.

MARTIN: What about you, Representative Bice, what is the leave policy in your office?

BICE: Same, actually. And my deputy chief of staff has had now two children under that policy and is taking paternity leave to stay home with both his son and daughter and support his family. And so, we, again, when we talk about Republicans being pro-family, this is just another way for us to show that we are trying to support our moms and dads out there who are, you know, just getting started with their families.

MARTIN: People have tried so hard before, and it just seems so obvious that this is something that — well, it isn’t obvious if people don’t agree with it. So, let me just, you know, respect the people who just don’t believe this is necessary for whatever reason. But the United States is such an outlier in this —

BICE: Michel, let me just stop there —

MARTIN: Go ahead.

BICE: I think that that narrative is something that Chrissy and I both don’t really agree with.


BICE: I mean, I don’t hear a lot of people out there saying we shouldn’t be doing this. As a matter of fact, since we had the launch of this particular working group, I haven’t had one single person reach out to my office, through social media or otherwise, and suggests that this isn’t something that we should be looking into.

MARTIN: No, no. That’s not my point. My point is that there are lots of things that people would like to see happen, that for whatever reason don’t. And we are just — I — so my question is, is that do you think that the success of this venture will hinge on the timing or the fact that the two of you are modeling the change you want to see in essence?

HOULAHAN: Well, there’s definitely is the — you know, you can’t be what you can’t see. And if we’re not here doing it, then we cannot certainly solve this issue. I’m not Pollyanna-ish enough to believe that somehow we are special or unique and that we will crack this problem open and solve for this problem where many, many people have not. But I do believe that we are in a unique time and that this is a unique opportunity. And I do also believe that in my limited time here in Congress, I’ve been here for four years, that fortune favors the bold. And that every once in a while, something miraculous happens in a place like Washington and things break open. You know, the reason why we have paid leave for federal employees, actually to Stephanie’s point, came as a combination of rare Earth elements, and we can have a longer conversation about that. And the fact that we had an overabundance of tungsten in the stockpile combined with a very amenable chair, Chairman Smith on the NDA — on the Armed Services Committee, combined with Ivanka Trump being very much an advocate for family leave. And that collision of weirdness ended up and being able to allow for more than 2 million federal employees to have leave. And so, I am just gung-ho enough to believe that there is that sort of opportunity. And if, for some reason, Stephanie and I and our group doesn’t succeed in solving the entire problem, our mission is to try to make sure we allow for more people to have more leave — more paid leave. And if we do that then we have, in many cases, succeeded.

MARTIN: So, let’s stream even bigger. Representative Bice, do you think that the example that the two of you might set on this particular problem might extend to other very significant issues affecting the country like — oh, I don’t know, the debt ceiling? What do you think?

BICE: We can only hope, you know. I think that, as I mentioned earlier, Americans are looking for some bipartisanship right now. We’ve had a lot of divisive issues come before us over these last several weeks, months, and years. And I think that showing that we can you know just agree without being disagreeable, that we can work together to find some sort of common policy ground is important. And, yes. There is going to be, you know, lines in the sand drawn, you know, on both sides. But at the end of the day, we have to work together to figure out how do we get across this and find some way to move forward.

MARTIN: Representative Chrissy Houlahan, Representative Stephanie Bice, thank you both so much for talking with us. And I do hope that we will talk again when you have a bill that we can talk about.

HOULAHAN: Thank you.

BICE: Thanks, Michel.

About This Episode EXPAND

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