(WOMENSENEWS) — The battle for paid family leave is revving up, both at the federal level and in state legislatures across the country, and advocates are hopeful that 2001 will be the year that at least a handful of states approve some plan for replacing lost wages during family leave.

The political line-up of the proponents of paid leave is much stronger and far better than it has been in the past, said Karen Nussbaum, head of the AFL-CIO’s Working Women Department.

Labor leaders have joined the coalitions pushing paid leave in a number of states, including Vermont, where the state AFL-CIO has made paid leave its No. 1 legislative issue, she said. “Will, say, the speaker of the house in the New Jersey state legislature figure it out this year? I do not know. But he will soon,” Nussbaum predicted.

“I think the states are busting at the seams to get this done,” added Lissa Bell, senior policy associate with the Washington, D.C.-based National Partnership for Women & Families, the leading proponent of paid family leave.

The new legislatures have been in session only since mid-January and eight states have already introduced paid leave legislation and more are expected. Those eight states–Arizona, Kansas, New Jersey, Oregon, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Texas and Washington–use a variety of approaches to come up with the money needed to pay workers who are on leave.

The primary approaches:

Expanding temporary disability insurance to cover paid family leave. Some states are considering this. A California study found that expanding the state’s disability program to allow for paid family leave would result in a maximum weekly cost per covered employee of only 88 cents. A New Hampshire study reported the weekly cost in that state would be $1.83 per covered employee.

Using the unemployment insurance program to replace wages. This approach is proving the most popular, particularly in states that have a well-funded unemployment trust fund. This approach nearly passed the Vermont legislature last year. That state estimated its $2 million cost annually would constitute less than 1 percent of the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund balance. Other states, such as Illinois, have abandoned that effort in the belief that its unemployment insurance fund could not withstand the drain of paying workers who are on leave.

Creating a family leave insurance payroll tax requiring employers and employees to contribute to a state fund for paid leave. In Washington, 74 percent of voters said they support establishing such a fund. A report from the Economic Opportunity Institute for Working Families, determined that the Washington state fund could be supported with a 2-cent-an-hour payroll tax shared by workers and employers. Workers would receive $250 a week while on leave. The institute is a nonpartisan, public policy institute working on issues of economic security for working families.

Adapting a child care subsidy program to allow parents who stay home to qualify for the subsidy that otherwise would have been paid to a child care center or day care provider. This program already is operating in Minnesota, with an average monthly subsidy of $277.

Creating a partnership between employers, employees and the state. Each would contribute up to one-third of the wage replacement–the employee would forego one-third of her or his wages, with the employer and state splitting the cost of the remaining two-thirds. The proposal in Illinois would cap payments at $500 a week, limiting exposure for employers and the state to $250 a week per employee.

Using surplus money from Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, formerly known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children, to provide paid leave to low-income working women. This is the newest idea and hasn’t yet been proposed by any state.

Political Line-up of Paid Leave Proponents Gets Longer and Stronger

In addition to the state battles over paid leave, members of Congress will debate its merits under a bill introduced on Jan. 22 that would expand the 8-year-old Family and Medical Leave Act in several ways.

The “Right Start Act of 2001” would expand the Family and Medical Leave Act by lowering the threshold for coverage to companies employing 25 or more. It also would expand coverage to provide for up to 24 hours of leave each year in order to participate in a child’s school activities or to take time off to deal with the effects of domestic violence, including time spent in court and receiving medical care. Finally, it would allocate $400 million to states for demonstration projects that would provide full or partial wage replacement for workers taking family leave.

Currently, the Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave to employees of companies with 50 or more workers who need time off to care for a newborn or an ill family member or to recover from their own serious illness. An estimated 4 million workers have used the leave each year, but surveys, including one from the U.S. Department of Labor, consistently find that workers who say they need leave won’t take it because they can’t afford to lose the income.

The Right Start Act was introduced with 18 co-sponsors, all of them Democrats. The White House press office did return calls seeking President Bush’s position on the bill, but Bell, from the national partnership, said she is optimistic that paid family leave will become a reality under a Republican administration.

Free-lance writer Cindy Richards has been a reporter for the Chicago Tribune and a reporter, columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Sun-Times. She has written about health care, children’s issues, education and women’s issues. She was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for her coverage of workplace issues.

For more information, visit:

National Partnership for Women & Families: http://www.nationalpartnership.org

AFL-CIO’s Working Women Department: http://www.aflcio.org/women/index.htm

WEnews Brief

Bill To Nullify Global Gag Rule Offered in Senate

(WOMENSENEWS) — A bill with bipartisan support was introduced Thursday in the U.S. Senate in an effort to nullify the so-called global gag rule imposed by President Bush seeking to suppress discussion of abortion by international family planning groups.

The Global Democracy Promotion Act of 2001 was introduced By Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Olympia Snowe (R-Me.) and Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.). Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) will introduce an identical bill in the House when it returns from recess next week.

The legislation aims to repeal or reverse Bush’s executive order of Jan. 22 reinstating the Mexico City Policy, which cuts off all aid to international family planning organizations which provide counsel about abortions or those that advocate or lobby for abortion reform. It applies even to groups which use their own funds for these purposes and operate legally overseas. The use of U.S. funds to fund actual abortions is barred by a different law.

The proposed act would permanently prevent the United States from imposing restrictions on organizations eligible for U.S. aid “solely on the basis of health or medical services” they offer. If adopted, the measure would change the law and make Bush’s executive order illegal. However, the President was expected to veto any such measure.

“Bush’s gag rule flies in the face of our democratic principles by preventing organizations abroad from practicing free speech,” Boxer said, adding that it “undoubtedly will increase the number of unsafe abortions worldwide.”

Both pieces of legislation are co-sponsored by more than 40 members of the House and Senate from both parties. — By Laurence Pantin.

To read an earlier Women’s Enews article on this subject, see:

Bush Reinstates Global Gag Rule: