A 74-year-old man is blocking Congress from providing American workers with paid family and medical leave, leaving the United States as the only industrialized nation without such a mandate.
On Wednesday, Senate Democrats said they would have to drop the provision from their Build Back Better legislation because they were unable to convince Joe Manchin from West Virginia to get on board.
“The fact that this one older white gentleman, who perhaps has never had to contend with family caregiving or the risk of losing his job or being unable to pay his bills, could stand in the way of paid leave for nearly 20 million people a year is shocking and upsetting,” said Vicki Shabo, senior fellow at the New America Foundation.
Democrats have had to significantly pare back their plans for the Build Back Better tax and spending legislation after Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) made clear they would not support a package as large as $3.5 trillion over 10 years, as President Joe Biden initially proposed.
The final number is expected to be under $2 trillion. And to get there, Democrats had to eliminate, or trim, much-sought programs.
As HuffPost reported, Manchin privately expressed concern about the cost of offering paid leave, as well as the potential for fraud.
Democrats had been trying to scale back their proposal to meet the cost constraints and satisfy Manchin. It went from offering 12 weeks of leave to just four. Then there were discussions about leaving out sick leave. But ultimately, they were unable to reach an agreement and communicated as much to their House colleagues Wednesday afternoon.
Still, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who had been working on the compromise, was trying to hold out hope Wednesday. She said Manchin was still “looking over the details.”
Manchin, however, said the Build Back Better package was not the place for it.
“I’m looking at everything but to put this into a reconciliation bill — it’s a major policy — is not the place to do it,” Manchin told HuffPost.
Just 23% of private sector workers have access to paid family leave provided by their employer and 42% have access to medical leave.
Universal paid leave would allow workers to take time off for a new child, recovery from an illness, taking care of a seriously ill family member or issues arising from a loved one’s military deployment.
Unless Biden is able to address paid leave in some other form, former President Donald Trump will have made more progress on the issue. In 2019, he signed the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act, giving an estimated 2 million federal employees access to 12 weeks of paid parental leave.
Supporters were especially frustrated that the possibility of a federal paid leave mandate was killed after the pandemic made so clear how essential it is for workers to be able to take time off without losing their jobs.
“I think it’s horrific that one white man can make this decision,” said Dawn Huckelbridge, director of Paid Leave for All. “But I think it’s also a failure of our entire government. This should have been a monumental legacy we could have left the American people in a time of need. And this could have been a cornerstone program that would have helped every working family in this country. And we’ve squandered that opportunity.”