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Opinion The Senate tax bill should give families the paid leave they deserve

A statue dedicated to the officers, seamen and Marines of the U.S. Navy is seen near the dome of the U.S. Capitol in July. (Oliver Contreras/For The Washington Post)

Deb Fischer, a Republican, represents Nebraska in the U.S. Senate.

Congress has a chance to make history by enacting the first nationwide paid family leave policy as part of the Senate tax reform bill.

While many working adults have been busy raising children, our nation’s aging population has created a dual strain as those adults’ caregiving duties have expanded to looking after elderly relatives. Life is stressful for families trying to make it all work. It can feel like there simply aren’t enough hours in a day.

For four years in the Senate, I’ve been working on the plan to address this challenge that was included in our tax bill. My proposal aims to increase Americans’ access to paid family leave while remaining cognizant of the realities of running a business — especially a small one.

This plan uses a tax credit to encourage employers to offer workers up to 12 weeks of paid family leave. Using what I call the "carrot approach," the policy gives businesses an incentive to give employees more flexibility when they face family worries.

This is the kind of paid-leave program the American people support. A Pew Research Center study released in March looked at people who have taken, or wanted to take, leave in the past two years. Participants said that having paid leave for family or medical reasons was more helpful than any other benefit or work arrangement. The findings showed that 87 percent of participants somewhat or strongly favor a tax break for employers who provide paid family leave. That's exactly what my measure does.

Larger corporations are already offering paid family leave, especially to C-Suite and high-salaried employees. Leaders of big businesses realize that this particular benefit can increase productivity and help them retain top talent. But a family-run fast-food franchise in Nebraska doesn’t have the same means to offer paid leave as a global tech company. And companies already providing paid family leave to their executives and managers don’t always extend the benefit to middle-to-lower-income or hourly workers.

My plan targets the category of workers who commonly lack access to paid family leave by instituting a $72,000 yearly pay cap for employee eligibility. Additionally, this proposal would extend to those employed by mom-and-pop businesses who may not have access to leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, and it is tailored to part-time workers. Employers in the District, or in states such as California and New York, where paid family leave is already required, would be able to build upon existing programs to expand access.

Men and women can use their leave to take an hour, a day or weeks off to care for a family member. They can take maternity or paternity leave to bond with a biological or adopted newborn. With this option, fewer American workers would have to forfeit the wages they need to provide for their loved ones.

This plan is a middle ground that respects both families and businesses. Employers who take advantage of the program are entitled to a tax credit of up to 25 percent of wages replaced — a significant incentive. There are no government mandates or new federal programs, the burdens of which usually produce costs for both employers and employees.

Creating a way for small companies to more easily provide paid family leave will tip the balance toward broad adoption of this family-friendly policy.

Still, because it’s set up as a two-year pilot program, once the provision is implemented there will be an opportunity to gather data and evaluate whether the credit works. Neither families nor businesses should be stuck in something that doesn’t work for them. My proposal does not create an open-ended, expensive program without an expiration date and without knowing whether it meets its goals. It is a responsible way to move forward.

Critics of this proposal should recognize the step we can take here. Why stick to the status quo when we have a viable option that could make a positive difference for our families, right now? We know the conversation on this important issue is not going away.

A recent Ernst & Young survey of full-time workers in eight countries revealed that paid family leave is more important to millennials than to generations before them. Eighty-three percent of those surveyed are more likely to join a company that provides this benefit. Our future workforce wants to see action. The plan passed by the Senate should prevail in conference.

Read more on this topic:

Sheryl Sandberg and Rachel Thomas: Celebrate Labor Day by supporting national paid family leave

Michael Gerson: Republicans had a chance to reject their inner plutocrat. They blew it.

Elizabeth Warren: The Republican tax plan puts rich donors ahead of working families

Catherine Rampell: Who wins biggest in the GOP tax plan? The lazy rich.

George F. Will: Here's an idea, Republicans: Repeal and replace the tax code