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The issue is likely to get a lot of attention in the run up to next year’s presidential election
IN EVERY CONGRESS since 2013, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has introduced a bill that would give workers 12 weeks of partially-paid leave to care for a new baby or a sick relative. Every time, the bill has gone nowhere. This is despite the fact that America is almost the only developed country in the world not to guarantee paid leave to new mothers (many countries also offer it to fathers) and most Americans—Republicans as well as Democrats—would like that to change.
The Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, known as the Family Act, is unlikely to get very far in the 116th Congress either. The paid leave it proposes would be funded by a small payroll tax paid by employers and employees; Republican lawmakers are unlikely to vote for anything that raises taxes or forces employers to provide benefits.?
But both the proposal and the issue of paid family leave are likely to get a lot of attention in the run up to next year’s general election. Ms Gillibrand is running for president and Democrats are becoming increasingly enthusiastic about paid family leave—her plan is co-sponsored by several of her rivals for the Democratic nomination. Even more strikingly, Republicans, who have long tended to consider the notion of paid family leave an anti-business abomination, are beginning to come up with their own plans.
Several Republicans are working on family leave bills. They include at least two senators, Marco Rubio of Florida and Joni Ersnt of Iowa, and Ann Wagner, a House member from Missouri. Their proposals all differ from Ms Gillibrand’s in a significant way: they propose to allow workers to voluntarily draw on their future Social Security benefits to cover periods of leave. The idea of deferring retirement for as long as it would take a person to offset that cost, which this plan would involve, is anathema to many. Its supporters counter that it is both voluntary and relatively cheap: the Democrats’ Family Act would be more onerous for all workers and employers.
The fact that Republicans are drawing up plans for such a policy represents a major shift. The change has come with President Donald Trump, who in 2016 became the first Republican presidential nominee to tout a national paid leave programme. He doubled down on that in February during his State of the Union address, promising that a new law would ensure “every new parent has the chance to bond with their newborn child”. That solicited a whoop from Ms Wagner.
Mr Trump has attributed his belief in the policy to his daughter Ivanka, an unpaid adviser, who has held several meetings with both Democratic and Republican lawmakers on the issue. But lawmakers are also responding to two growing pressures. The first is economic: as America ages and its working age population shrinks it needs more women to work. In 1990, America ranked sixth out of 22 wealthy economies in terms of female labour force participation. It now ranks 20th. A growing body of research into the effects of paid leave legislation at state level, meanwhile, suggests conservatives’ fears that mandated leave will hurt businesses are unfounded.
But Republicans are also responding to a more immediate political danger. In November’s mid-terms, Democrats made some of their biggest gains among female voters, especially in suburban areas. Republicans are trying to find ways to win them back. Promising paid family leave, which is broadly popular, looks like a good way to do that.
At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, DC in February, Rick Santorum, a former Republican senator and contender for the Republican presidential nomination, flagged up the political imperative to support paid family leave. Mr Santorum might seem an unlikely proponent of the policy; in 1993 he voted against the Family and Medical Leave Act, which allowed workers to take 12 weeks off, without pay, to look after a newborn or sick relative.
“How does that happen?” he asked a small crowd at CPAC, alluding to his pivot. He said that the high costs of child care, which were contributing to low birth rates, were affecting middle- and lower-income Americans particularly. Workers on lower incomes, he went on, tended not to have access to the paid family leave schemes that are offered by an increasing number of companies.?
“These are increasingly our voters”, he said. “These are our people. If you want to take the Trump coalition and continue that coalition, you’d better have answers”.