Senate Republicans unveiled a package of bills to deal with the issues facing working parents on Thursday, in response to a summit to be held next week by the White House on working families. But none of the bills included in the package would be likely to bring much them much relief.
Today’s families face a number of challenges: About half of all parents say it’s difficult for them to balance the demands of raising their children with the demands of work. Childcare costs more than rent or food, just 12 percent get paid leave if they have a new child, and if a kid gets sick 40 percent of workers can’t take a paid day to care for them.
Called “A Fair Shot for Everyone,” one key piece of the Republicans’ package, introduced by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), is the Working Parents Home Office Act, which allows parents to deduct home office costs from their taxes if they have a baby crib in the office. “These are just the kinds of things that could make a difference in people’s lives now,” McConnell said.
The bill would not, of course, address the cost of childcare for parents who have to go into the office, nor would it help those who want to telecommute or have a more flexible schedule, but can’t. Universal preschool and higher spending on childcare assistance could help parents find an affordable, high-quality place to leave their kids if they have to go into the office. A “right to request” law like the ones in San Francisco and Vermont would give all workers an easier way to ask their employers about flexible working arrangements.
The Republican response to the need for flexible schedules is the Working Families Flexibility Act, which Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) is now pushing and Republicans tried to pass last April. Instead of requiring that employers pay workers higher wages when they work more than 40 hours a week, as under current overtime laws, the bill would instead give them the option of compensating employees with “comp time” off of work. But rather than giving working parents some relief, it would likely end up putting employer pressure on them to take comp time instead of extra pay and loosen the disincentive employers currently have to make workers stay past 40 hours.
A long workweek is also encroaching on parents’ lives. Ninety-four percent of professional workers put in 50 hours or more each week, and nearly half clock 65 or more, leaving little time to spend with children.
But Republicans are worried about the Affordable Care Act shrinking the workweek. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) introduced the Forty Hours is Full Time Act, as part of the same new package of working family bills, which would repeal the Obamacare’s rule requiring employers to provide health insurance to employees who work at least 30 hours a week to avoid a penalty. Doing that would mean 500,000 people losing health care coverage and going uninsured.
The Affordable Care Act’s hours requirement has encouraged some companies to simply treat those who work 30 hours a week as full time and offer them complete benefits. That might be beneficial to someone trying to balance family life with work life. Very few employers are actually cutting hours, as Republicans fear will be the consequence of the requirement.
Republicans are also offering a solution to the gender wage gap in their new package: a bill similar to the Democrats’ Paycheck Fairness Act that would end the practice of employers banning their employees from discussing their salaries. Nearly half of all workers are either prohibited or strongly discouraged from talking about pay, which makes it difficult for women to find out whether they’re being unfairly paid less.
The bill differs from the Democrats’ solution by dropping the part that would raise punitive damages for pay discrimination against women. But women are struggling to get equal pay through the courts the way things stand. While they won more than half of their claims between 1990 and 1999, they’ve won just about a third of them since then. Meanwhile, there hasn’t been significant progress in closing the wage gap in a decade. The increased damages of the Paycheck Fairness Act are aimed at discouraging employers from unfairly paying women less by making it more expensive if they’re found out.
The other two pieces of legislation in the package would reform the Jobs Corps and other adult re-education programs and amend the National Labor Relations Act so that employers could give merit-based raises outside of collective bargaining agreements.
Democrats have already offered their legislative packages for working families and, in particular, working women. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and other House Democrats have pushed their agenda to address equal pay, work/family balance, and childcare. It includes the Paycheck Fairness Act, a minimum wage increase, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, investment in job training programs, support for women entrepreneurs and small businesses, and others. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has a five-point “American Opportunity Plan” that includes paid family leave, a minimum wage increase, high-quality affordable childcare and universal preschool, and equal pay measures.