White House Mulling Scaled-Down, COVID-Related Paid Leave Plan

The White House is exploring a push for a coronavirus-related paid leave program akin to that enacted in an earlier round of pandemic relief, three people familiar with the conversations said Thursday.

It would be much more narrowly tailored than the 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave for all workers Biden proposed in his original social spending package, Build Back Better. When opposition from moderates crumbled efforts to pass the legislation, hopes for that program — or even a dramatically scaled-down version — collapsed.

Now, advocates are pushing for Congress to pass provisions similar to those proposed in Democrats’ HEROES Act. That legislation would extend and expand on the emergency paid leave program in an earlier round of pandemic relief, to provide all workers with two weeks of Covid-related sick leave at full pay and 12 weeks of Covid-related family and medical leave at two-thirds pay.

The program would be short-lived, with an expiration date likely later this year, rather than a yearslong effort like lawmakers proposed in Build Back Better.

The White House is seriously considering getting on board with the effort, said the people, who wanted to remain anonymous to safeguard their participation in the talks. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

While it’s unclear how Congress would move the legislation, it’s possible lawmakers could do so as part of an upcoming omnibus spending bill or even as a subsequent standalone measure.

Either way, Democrats would have to earn the support of at least some Republicans.

While some Republicans and business groups have expressed support for paid leave in general, they have also raised concerns about the overall cost and its impact on employers.

The U.S. is the only wealthy nation without a federal paid leave policy. An estimated 4 in 5 workers lack access to paid family leave, while 3 in 5 workers lack access to paid medical leave. More than 2 in 10 do not have access to paid sick leave.

Covid — and, most recently, the surging Omicron variant — has thrust the issue into dramatic relief. In the last month, nearly 9 million people reported they could not work because they either had Covid or were caring for someone who did, according to the Census Bureau — more than in any other wave of the virus.

“It’s clear that we need an intervention now, with another surge providing the highest number of workers affected and not working because of Covid and caregiving,” one of the people said.

Advocates are hopeful, particularly given that Congress passed the original emergency paid leave program on a bipartisan basis as part of the Families First bill.

“There’s a long list of Republicans who touted that vote,” the person added. This time around, “the need is still there, and it’s worse than ever.”

In the meantime, advocates aren’t giving up on enacting a longer-term paid leave program as part of the Build Back Better push.

The temporary program is “only a Band-Aid solution for the longer term needs that our country has around ensuring every person in the country has access to permanent, paid family and medical leave — both for future waves of Covid and the other pandemic that comes our way, but also for the ongoing needs that we all know people experience day in and day out,” another one of the people said.

Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said in an interview Monday that he “would love to see Congress take up [a] paid leave bill.”

“We will have paid leave in this country at some point in the future,” he said. “And someday, people are going to look back and say, ‘Why didn’t we do this earlier?’”


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