Vangie Williams, a mother of six, was facing foreclosure and a pile of medical bills for her 2-year-old daughter’s rare lung condition when she wrote to her congressman. She wanted help. But she got a form letter, she recalled.
The experience was one of many that convinced the Virginia Democrat several years later to challenge 1st District Republican Rep. Rob Wittman on a platform that includes paid leave so families caring for sick relatives can avoid some of the impossible financial decisions that she faced. She and her husband ended up tapping out their retirement accounts and losing their home, she said.
“A lot of people who are representing us now have a limited understanding of what it feels like,” she said. “I am not rich. I am a mother of six daughters. I work full-time while running for Congress.”
Just days from the midterm elections, Williams’ bid is a decided long shot. But her campaign has attracted national attention since the June Democratic primary in which she beat two male opponents for a chance to become the first ever African-American woman to represent the commonwealth in Congress.
The interest allowed Williams, along with dozens of the record-breaking 257 women running for the House and Senate this year, to change the conversation surrounding traditional “women’s issues.” Among them is paid family leave, which is showing up in an unprecedented number of candidates’ platforms during the 2018 midterm cycle, according to the nonprofit advocacy group Paid Leave for the United States. The group's political arm, PL+US Action, endorsed 60 candidates this cycle, about half in competitive races.
Regardless of how many women win, advocates say the attention candidates are bringing to the issue should resonate in the new Congress and potentially change national policies.
“In the next Congress, regardless of which party wins, we may be looking at slim majorities,” said Andrea Zuniga, the legislative director and counsel at Paid Leave for the United States. “There will be a push for issues that could cross the aisle and get bipartisan support. Paid family leave is keyed up to be one of them.”
The right time
The issue is almost tailor-made for a year in which female candidates are dropping the pretensions associated with political campaigns. It allows candidates to delve into intimate stories of childbirth or family medical crises, while also touching upon academic questions of workforce sustainability, gender equality, racial justice and economic strains on the middle- and low-income families.
The United States is the only industrialized country that doesn’t guarantee paid time off to workers when they become new parents, despite a body of research that indicates such policies contribute to fewer babies with low birth weight, fewer infant deaths, higher rates of breastfeeding, improved maternal health and increased long-term achievement for children.
Black and Hispanic workers are less likely than whites to have access to paid leave, a statistic often cited as a contributor to the significantly higher rates of maternal and infant mortality among African-Americans.
Candidates like Williams are speaking about it in personal terms.
Before her daughter Lylia, now 14, was diagnosed with aspergillosis — a cascade of health problems caused by an adverse reaction to a common mold — Williams was among the one in four American women to go back to work within two weeks of delivering a child.
She worked as a federal contractor with no benefits. She gave birth to one of her older daughters on a Monday and was working from home by the end of the week.
“If I did not work, I did not get paid,” Williams said. “That was an eye-opener. She was born a healthy child, but I still needed to heal.”
Amy McGrath, who is waging a competitive campaign against Republican incumbent Andy Barr in Kentucky’s 6th District, was eligible for six weeks of paid leave through the military when her three children were born. That benefit has since been extended to up to 12 weeks, said McGrath, a retired lieutenant colonel.
She acknowledged that the military’s policy put her in the minority of Americans. Only 13 percent of private-industry employees had access to paid family leave through their employers last year, according to the Congressional Research Service. But even then, she said, “the whole thing was so gosh-darn stressful.”
She went through duty station transfers during the late stages of her first two pregnancies, both times forcing the family to scramble for child care in areas with long waiting lists.
“That’s why I think you need more to women in Congress who get it,” she said. “I don’t think you really understand it until you have lived it.”
Paid family leave also hits closely to an issue devastating parts of Kentucky and challenging constituents McGrath hopes to serve: the opioid crisis.
On the campaign trail, she said she’s heard from people about being forced to choose between helping a loved one get life-or-death treatment or keeping a job, even though employers in the region struggle to find and retain qualified workers. So she crafted a platform that would extend paid leave for caregivers of people undergoing drug treatment.
“I don’t think it will solve the opioid crisis,” she said. “But I do think it’s a pro-family policy.”
Sara Dady, a Democrat who is challenging Rep. Adam Kinzinger in Illinois’ 16th District, a GOP stronghold, was a lawyer running her own firm when her son was born. She went back to work the next day.
Since then, she has given employees in her growing firm 24 weeks of paid leave, and she encourages workers to bring their children to the office when they come back to work, where they sleep or play around their parents’ desks or in a designated children’s room, she said. The workplace is now anticipating the arrival of its newest office infant.
She casts paid leave as critical to small businesses like hers, which struggle to pay for employees’ short-term disability because most insurers don’t cover it. She also sees it as a boon to middle-class families, who can’t afford to take unpaid time and are stretched to pay for child care with monthly costs for a 4-year-old ranging from $344 in rural South Carolina to $1,472 in Washington, D.C., according to the Economic Policy Institute.
“Life happens to all of us,” Dady said. “There is a real economic cost to our workforce by not providing paid family leave.”
While many of the candidates talking about paid leave are Democrats, advocacy groups stress the potential for bipartisan consensus. A September poll by Paid Family Leave for the United States in deep-red Louisiana found that 82 percent of registered voters support national paid family and medical leave, and 76 percent would be more likely to vote for a congressional candidate who supports it. There was no clear consensus on how to fund it.
Zuniga, of Paid Family Leave for the United States, said politicians from both sides of the aisle are responding to such demand. She pointed to Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican who said at a July hearing that bipartisan consensus on the issue was within reach. Cassidy chairs the Senate Finance Social Security, Pensions and Family Policy Subcommittee.
Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio introduced a bill in August with the support of presidential daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump that would allow new parents to draw from their Social Security benefits to finance paid leave. Rep. Ann Wagner, a Missouri Republican, is expected to introduce a companion bill in the House.
That proposal met criticism that it forced new parents to borrow from their family’s future. Congressional Democrats have a competing proposal, the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, or FAMILY Act, that would increase payroll taxes to pay for workers to receive a portion of their pay if they needed to take time off to care for a new baby or a sick family member.
The important thing is both parties are talking about the issue, Zuniga said.
Democrats, though, have said they are prepared to force the conversation if they win control of the House next week, an 85.5 percent chance, according to FiveThirtyEight.com.
“My position is, one, it’s the right thing to do, and two, it promotes more productive employees,” said Democratic Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, who has maintained strong ties with Republicans such as fellow Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise while leading the Congressional Black Caucus. Richmond also has personal experience with the issue: He traveled between D.C. and Louisiana when his son was born more than 10 weeks premature. To him, he said, passing paid leave is a moral issue.
“If we take control of the House, we just need to pass it and send it to the Senate,” he said.