The Senate GOP tax bill includes a provision aimed at encouraging employers to offer paid family leave to middle- and lower-income workers. Critics, including Democrats who've made paid leave a talking point, say it's too limited to help much.
The measure by Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) stands out in a piece of legislation that skews toward corporations and the wealthy. It allows employers to claim a credit of as much as 25 percent of the wages they pay to employees who take time off under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.
That law allows employees up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave per year to care for a new baby or ill family member, or when they themselves are unable to work because of a serious health condition. The leave is unpaid, and the law applies only to companies with 50 or more employees.
A few states — California, New Jersey and Rhode Island — have passed laws providing for paid family leave. Otherwise, unlike in many other industrialized nations, workers in the United States have access to paid leave only if their employers choose to offer it. As a result it tends to be only the best-compensated workers who get the benefit.
Democrats have united around calls for mandatory paid leave, and such a proposal was part of Hillary Clinton's campaign platform last year.
Then-candidate Donald Trump, urged on by daughter Ivanka, proposed six weeks of paid maternity leave.
Trump has not pushed much on the issue since becoming president. Although his daughter has discussed the issue and other family-friendly programs with Fischer and other lawmakers, her advocacy has had little apparent impact.
Legislating requirements on businesses is not big with Republicans. Fischer has been working for years on a way to incentivize employers to move on their own. She seized on the fast-moving tax bill as a vehicle for her proposal.
"This provision is historic. It would be the first national paid leave policy in the U.S.," Fischer said in a statement Monday. "With my balanced, fair, and reasonable approach, Congress can make a meaningful impact on the lives of American workers caring for their families."
Fischer's provision applies to workers making under $72,000 annually and would be in effect for two years. Fischer has described it as a pilot program and hopes to have the Government Accountability Office study its effectiveness.
The measure is not in the House version of the tax bill. It does have House sponsors, and Fischer said she'd fight to ensure it makes it through to the final legislation, which House and Senate Republicans will be crafting in coming days.
Democrats say even if the provision survives, it doesn't go far enough to address the problem.
"It's great Senate Republicans recognize that paid family leave is an important issue, but this provision won't help the vast majority of workers and small businesses who don't already have access to paid leave," said Whitney Brennan, a spokeswoman for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).
Brennan said Republicans should back a proposal from Gillibrand and other Democrats to offer 12 weeks of paid time off for any worker with a new child.
Daniel Hemel, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Law School, criticized Fischer's plan, critiquing its brevity and noting the tax incentive doesn't apply when employees are already getting paid leave, including from states. Hemel argued although some workers will benefit from Fischer's measure, it might have the effect of discouraging states from adopting paid leave laws of their own, if federal incentives are already in place.
"The minus side is if you're a state and you're on the fence between enacting a comprehensive paid leave program and not, this actually discourages you from doing so," Hemel said. "There's a world in which this leads to less paid leave."