INDIANAPOLIS –  It’s about time. 

On July 11, the U.S. Senate Committee on Social Security, Pensions and Family Policy held a landmark hearing on paid family leave. This hearing was long overdue and extremely critical to working families’ health and economic security. The U.S. is one of the only developed countries that does not offer some form of paid leave for family caregiving or serious illness, and just 15% of working people in the U.S. have paid family leave through their employer. Here in Indiana, only 37% of working people have access to and can afford the unpaid leave provided under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. 

This means that nearly one in four women in the United States return to their cubicles, factory floors, or storefronts within two weeks of giving birth. It means that seriously ill children are left alone in hospital beds while their parents feel compelled to remain at their desks or cash registers. It means that thousands of people struggle and strain to keep up with the demands of their paid work while caring for an aging parent. A systematic approach to creating space for care across the spectrum is sorely needed.  

Acknowledging that few workers have access to paid family leave, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), the committee chair, began the hearing by listing off a number of potential benefits to expanded access to paid family leave, especially to lower-income workers who are less likely to have access to leave of any kind. 

Beyond supporting caregiving, paid leave helps people to stay in the workforce, which is both beneficial to long-run earnings and economic growth. Adding, “I’m a doctor. I’m also concerned about infant and maternal health,” Sen. Cassidy also noted that with access to paid leave, women are less likely to be readmitted to the hospital after giving birth and families are less likely to experience the devastation of losing an infant. Policymakers on both sides of the aisle and a panel of experts affirmed both the need for and the potential benefits of expanded access to paid leave.

While it is encouraging to see that we as a nation are moving beyond the “if” to the how’s and why’s, the policy details matter. To illustrate, let’s consider the two proposals that have gained traction. One covers new parents only by allowing them tap Social Security funds early, requiring them to delay retirement and take a Social Security cut on the back end and replacing a small portion of their wages while on leave. 

This would shut out the three-quarters of the individuals who currently take unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act and, without reform to Social Security, could further jeopardize retirement sustainability. On the other hand, the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, which is modeled after successful programs that passed with bipartisan support in several states, would establish an inclusive national paid leave insurance program to guarantee workers some pay when they need time to help a parent with Alzheimer’s, adjust to nighttime feedings, or recover from a car accident. It would be funded sustainably through employer and employee payroll contributions equivalent to a cup of coffee a week – and that means drive thru brew, not a triple latte.  

Addressing America’s paid leave crisis is critical and long overdue. Will Congress finally come together and solve one of the great challenges facing American workers in an effective, meaningful way? Every day they do not means more precious moments forgone.

The clock is ticking.  

Macey, PhD. is a policy analyst for Indiana Institute for Working Families and Indiana Community Action Association.