Last week, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump announced a plan for six weeks of paid maternity leave for new mothers whose employers do not guarantee paid leave, offered through unemployment insurance.
Trump’s plan came after Democratic rival Hillary Clinton’s proposal to ensure that employees taking up to 12 weeks of leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) would receive at least two-thirds of their wages (up to a ceiling).
The policies differ in many ways. For instance, Trump’s plan covers women after childbirth; Clinton’s calls for equal coverage for women and men, whether they become parents through pregnancy, surrogacy or adoption.
But put the differences aside for a minute. Trump’s announcement was historic: It marked the first time in U.S. history that both major-party candidates have put forward paid family leave policies.
Today only eight countries do not guarantee any type of paid family leave at the national level; the United States is the only industrialized nation on that list.
Trump’s and Clinton’s proposals suggest that the United States may finally be joining all other developed nations on family leave. It has taken a long time to get here.
A brief history of U.S. family leave policy
The United States has long lagged on family leave benefits. By World War II, almost all developed countries offered working women some form of paid maternity leave. The United States didn’t even offer unpaid leave until 1993.
A preliminary step had come in 1978, when Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), outlawing discrimination against pregnant workers and requiring employers to allow women to use their sick days and disability benefits for pregnancy-related medical conditions, including childbirth.
Passing the PDA was significant, even symbolic. Lawmakers were acknowledging that demographics had changed and that women were a vital part of the postwar labor force.
But the PDA didn’t guarantee time off to care for a new child. As a result, many women had to leave their jobs after giving birth, and women’s rights activists focused on passing a family leave bill.
After nine years of partisan debate and two vetoes by President George H.W. Bush, President Bill Clinton signed the FMLA in 1993. The law guarantees that eligible workers can take 12 weeks of unpaid leave, with their jobs protected, to care for a new child, for a family member with a serious illness or injury, or for the employee’s own serious health condition.
So what’s happened to family leave since the FMLA?
Conservatives blasted the new legislation as government overreach. Rep. John A, Boehner (R-Ohio), then in his first term in Congress, predicted that it would lead to the “demise” of U.S. business, and that “as that occurs, the light of freedom will grow dimmer.”
However, the overwhelming majority of employers have reported that the FMLA has had either a positive or neutral effect on employee productivity, absenteeism, turnover, career advancement and morale, and overall profitability.
Still, many workers cannot afford to take leave without being paid. Most family leave advocates saw the FMLA as a starting point. They thought that lawmakers would gradually expand the law to protect more workers (only 60 percent of the workforce is currently eligible) — and would eventually cover the employees’ wages.
Nothing happened for almost 15 years after the FMLA passed. Hoping to avoid the gridlock that had become common at the national level, many activists shifted efforts to states and cities, with some success.
Four states have implemented paid family leave that is financed by employee contributions to a social insurance fund. Dozens of cities and counties, from New York City to Multnomah County, Ore., cover the cost of paid family leave for municipal employees. In April 2016, San Francisco adopted the first citywide paid parental leave law in the United States; it will be funded by employee and employer contributions.
In the past decade, federal legislation has once again gotten attention. In 2008 and 2009, Congress added three minor amendments to the FMLA, expanding coverage for workers who have a family member in the military and for airline flight crew members. Same-sex spouses gained coverage after the 2013 Supreme Court decision in United States v. Windsor.
As part of her 2008 bid to become the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton proposed “a bold goal of having paid leave for all American workers by 2016.” And in 2015, President Obama did something that no other president has done: He called for paid family leave in the State of the Union address.
But the 2016 election has brought paid family leave into mainstream policy discussion
In April 2015, Clinton announced her support for paid leave in the first major speech of her presidential campaign. Over the next few months, her main rivals for the nomination, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, said they supported paid family leave.
In September 2015, Marco Rubio become the only Republican primary candidate who came out in favor of paid family leave, proposing a tax credit for employers who offered at least four weeks of paid leave voluntarily.
And now Trump has called for paid family leave as well. That may be because many polls still show Trump trailing Clinton by double digits among women voters. He may hope to close that gap by supporting maternity leave and child-care policies, so-called “women’s issues.”
Trump’s policy would apply only to women who give birth. It would be administered through the Unemployment Insurance program and funded by savings resulting from eliminating fraud in that program.
The benefits in Clinton’s plan would be available to workers who are new parents, who are caring for a family member with a serious illness or injury, or who are suffering from their own serious medical issue. Funding for Clinton’s policy would come solely from increased taxes on the wealthy.
Having both major candidates announce support for family leave is a breakthrough. Until now, family leave policies have been championed primarily by Democrats; Republicans have generally called such policies big government interference into the free market and Americans’ private lives.
But families have changed dramatically in recent decades. As of 2010, researchers Joan Williams and Heather Boushey found that 70 percent of American children were growing up in households in which all the adults worked full time.
Paid family leave resonates with voters, and support often transcends gender, party and ideology. As journalist Sharon Lerner observed, “it’s hard to think of another issue that unites so many voters but remains perennially neglected.”
Megan A. Sholar is a lecturer in the Interdisciplinary Honors Program at Loyola University Chicago, and author of “Getting Paid While Taking Time: The Women’s Movement and the Development of Paid Family Leave Policies in the United States” (Temple University Press, 2016). Follow her on Twitter @megan_sholar.