On a number of Sunday shows this weekend, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) responded to recent calls that he support a federal paid family leave program after insisting on preserving his own family. The new speaker of the House made it clear that he won’t back such a policy.
In order to consider a run, as many in his party had urged, he had laid out a number of conditions, including the protection of the weekends he flies back to Wisconsin to spend with his three young children and his wife Janna. “I cannot and will not give up my family time,” he said.
Asked if this recognition of the need for work/family balance could mean supporting national paid family leave to help other parents, he answered with a resounding no. “I don’t think that sticking up for being a person with balance in your life, for wanting to spend your weekends in your home with your family… I don’t think that means signing up for some new unfunded mandate,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
He relayed the same message on “Fox News Sunday.” “I don’t think people asked me to be speaker so I can take more money from hard-working taxpayers, so I can create some new federal entitlement,” he said. He said he thinks most people want politicians representing them who are similar to them and understand the desire to spend time with their children. “That I think is what most people want in their life, is a balance. So if you’re asking me because I want to continue being the best dad and husband and speaker I can be — getting that work-life balance correct — means I should sign up for some new unfunded entitlement, that doesn’t make any sense to me,” he said.
Ryan’s views about paid leave may be consistent with his preference not to interfere with employers’ power over workers. Instead, many Republicans say workers should simply gain a better bargaining position to demand better benefits. But Ryan was operating from an exceptionally strong position compared to most American workers. Without a universal paid family leave program, the workers who are most in need of paid time off are the ones who have the least ability to demand and obtain the balance Ryan seeks.
Overall, few Americans get paid family leave from their employers — just 12 percent. But low-income workers are even less likely — just 5 percent whose income lands them in the bottom quarter of society have paid family leave — than richer counterparts, 21 percent of whom get the benefit. Inequalities exist between workplaces as well, not just workers. Ninety percent of the companies rated at the top for working mothers offer paid maternity and paternity leave, compared to less than a quarter of all employers in the country, a share that has barely budged in the last five years.
Without paid leave, a quarter of first-time mothers quit their jobs or are fired when they have a baby. Others have to borrow money, put off paying bills, or even enroll in public benefits to get by. Those who don’t leave their jobs often rush back to work just weeks after giving birth, which is taxing on their health and that of their babies.
Ryan’s solution to give employees more options for leave is a Republican-sponsored bill, the “Working Families Flexibility Act,” which would allow private sector workers to take paid time off instead of getting mandated time-and-a-half pay for their earned overtime hours. “I think we’ve had some pretty good legislation on flex time,” he said on CNN. “And that’s a bill that I think is a great idea.” The bill wouldn’t offer any extra flexibility, however, just a trade off between either using a mechanism to get pay for working extra hours or to get time off for a new baby, not both. It would also do nothing to encourage more companies to offer paid leave that don’t already.
A national paid family leave program, on the other hand, would give most Americans the ability to, in Ryan’s words, get their work/life balance correct, something he recognizes is sought after by more and more people. The same would be true for guaranteed paid sick days, vacation days, and holidays. There isn’t even a guarantee of a weekend in most states, the time Ryan specifically seeks to preserve for him and his family. A sizable share of American employees have little control over their work schedules.
By so publicly defending his family time, Ryan made the issue much more visible, particularly for fathers who are still not seen as parents in many workplaces. But on Sunday he made it crystal clear that he does not intend to go further than that to ensure that most fathers are able to follow his lead.