(WOMENSENEWS)– Just after the birth of his daughter in Palo Alto, Calif., Facebook CEO and smitten new dad Mark Zuckerberg posted a playful photo on the social network of his newborn daughter, showing her dressed up like a "Star Wars" Jedi. The 30-year-old was a couple of weeks into a planned two-month paternity leave from his company, which offers up to four months of paid parental leave; a rarity among U.S. employers.
That same day– Dec. 17, 2015– in Washington, D.C., Thi-Lai Simpson, a graphic designer for a local TV station, was feeling increasingly anxious in the weeks before her second child’s birth, after a maternity leave experience with her first baby in 2007 that she describes as "hell."
Simpson plans to join others testifying at a hearing in February–shortly after the birth of her child–in support of a plan to provide 16 weeks of paid family leave for District of Columbia residents and residents of nearby states who work for private companies based in D.C.
If it becomes law, the plan would make Washington, D.C., the first city to provide paid family medical leave for all residents and employees. It’s one of a number of initiatives in the public and private sectors that could make 2016 a momentous year for the paid-leave movement, advocates say.
The year ahead will see the implementation of parental leave policies for city employees in New York City; Kansas City, Mo.; San Francisco; Cincinnati, and elsewhere. A one-year pilot program in King County, Wash., will offer county employees up to 12 weeks of paid parental leave.
On Jan. 7, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signed an order to provide 20,000 city employees with as many as six weeks of paid parental leave, which may be combined with their existing leave benefits to total as many as 12 weeks off for maternity, paternity, adoption or foster-care leave without losing money or their job, Pix11 reported.
Crucial votes are also expected this year in Connecticut and New York State.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is giving a State of the State address on Jan. 13. Ahead of that more than 150 prominent women in the state–including activist and author Gloria Steinem and 17 state assemblywomen–sent Cuomo a letter on Jan. 8 urging him to make paid family leave a priority in 2016.
"When my son was born, I had to go back to work after seven weeks," Simpson told Women’s eNews of her former job as a sales assistant at a radio station in the District of Columbia. "Most of the daycares within my reach, I couldn’t fathom leaving a 2-month-old there. I would visit them and leave in tears. I was a single mom at the time. Honestly, being tired from having a newborn was the least of my worries."
Private Sector Workers Left Out
Simpson’s concerns are common in a country where a mere 12 percent of private-sector workers have access to paid family leave, according to the Department of Labor. The U.S. is the only advanced industrialized nation without a national paid leave policy.
This time around, Simpson is better informed of nearby childcare options. She is in a stable relationship and working for a company that offers up to eight weeks of paid leave following a standard vaginal delivery. Still, in a phone interview, she acknowledged, "it’s not enough." Her plan is to take 11 weeks off and the loss of a few paychecks will place a financial strain on her family.
Advocates hope these kinds of tradeoffs will become less common.
"We see  as a banner year leading in to what we think will be a game-changing year," said Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work, a national network of state and local coalitions that promote family-friendly workplaces.
Speaking to Women’s eNews by phone in late December, Bravo cited 2015 victories such as the start of statewide paid leave in Rhode Island; he third state, along with California and New Jersey, to offer wage replacement for workers taking time off to care for sick relatives or newborns.
Bravo also pointed to at least a dozen high-profile companies–including eBay, Amazon, Nestle and Microsoft–that are expanding paid-leave policies.
In late September, the U.S. Department of Labor announced $1.55 million in grants to research and analyze how paid leave programs can be developed and implemented throughout the country. The studies will build on innovative efforts already taking place at the state and local levels, U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez said in a press statement.
"This is where we’ll see the crucial proof-of-concept that paid leave benefits both employers and employees," Bravo said of the grants.
Chamber of Commerce Opposition
Paid-leave policies face opposition. In Washington, D.C, for example, groups such as the local Chamber of Commerce and the National Taxpayers Union are opposing the District of Columbia’s proposal, saying it would harm individual employers and drive businesses away.
On the national stage, the FAMILY Act, a bill sponsored by Democrats Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, would establish a national paid family and medical leave insurance program. It has stalled in the GOP-led Congress.
The issue promises to play a partisan role in a general election year.
House GOP Speaker Paul Ryan sparked criticism last fall from some quarters for saying, at one point during his deliberations over his current post, that he would not sacrifice time with his children to become speaker, despite his record of voting against federal legislation to expand family leave.
The three Democratic presidential contenders–Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley–support a nationwide plan, each proposing 12 weeks of paid family leave.
Only one Republican candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, has said he supports offering tax credits to companies that offer leave. The others have either stayed mum or said they believe the federal government should stay out of it.
In a comment that has been echoed by several of his fellow Republican candidates, Sen. Ted Cruz told a member of the work-family policy organization Make It Work last September: "I think maternity leave and paternity leave are wonderful things. I support them personally. But I don’t think the federal government should be in the business of mandating them."
Bravo said she doesn’t expect to see a massive and sudden shift on the federal level, at least not under the current Congress.
But she believes the coming year will bring the country more in line with other developed nations. "It’s not all going to happen this year, but it will happen in several states this year," she said. "And the groundwork for many more victories is going to happen this year. It’s going to become a matter not of if, but when."
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