Reconciliation negotiations test new clout of caregiving advocates

·14 min read

The Covid-19 pandemic thrust the role of caregiving into the national spotlight, with Democrats promising an enormous injection of funding for everything from paid family leave to home care services as they try to overhaul American social policy.

But as negotiations on President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better agenda hit the final stretch, many of these investments in the so-called “care economy” are on the chopping block — testing the clout of a movement that has leaped to the forefront of the political debate.

Advocates for policies like paid medical and family leave, child care and home- and community-based services are hoping to flex the political power they’ve amassed in recent years, particularly over the last 20 months, as the coronavirus pandemic pushed caregivers to the breaking point and a new cadre of Democrats swept into power in Washington promising change. Care activists and advocacy groups have become key surrogates for the Biden White House and Democratic leaders in Congress, who have seized on their rhetoric as they push for reforms – and inroads with women and suburban swing voters.

“For far too long, investments in care have dropped to the bottom of the priority list,” Vice President Kamala Harris said last week at a virtual town hall hosted by Care Can’t Wait, a coalition of the leading paid leave and caregiving advocacy groups that was formed last fall. “That is because most people who rely on care are women, and most people who supply care are also women.”

But behind closed doors, Democrats have agreed to slash the paid leave program in Biden’s social spending proposal. And the fate of child care and home health care funding; an extension of the child tax credit; and universal Pre-K programs remain in limbo as the party’s negotiators struggle to close a spending gap and win the backing of key lawmakers.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), for example, has warned that Democrats’ $3.5 trillion topline for the bill was “fiscal insanity” and argued that the government should not be creating new social programs when it can’t even fully fund existing ones, like Social Security and Medicare. Still, advocates have said that in conversations with Manchin and his team his concerns have centered more around the bill’s topline cost rather than paid leave.

Asked about paid leave in a CNN town hall on Thursday, Biden confirmed that the provision had shrunk dramatically from the 12 weeks supporters have held up as the prime length to maximize economic benefits.

“It is down to four weeks,” he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper in one of several candid assessments of the state of the negotiations. “And the reason it's down to four weeks, I can't get 12 weeks.”

The pandemic — which saw workers of all genders forced to juggle working from home, caring for children kept out of classrooms and caring for sick loved ones or becoming too sick to work themselves — as well as the female-led backlash to Donald Trump’s administration and the inauguration of the first female vice president have all contributed to what advocates told POLITICO is most fertile environment in recent memory for getting investments in care policies over the finish line.

“This is our moment,” said Ai-jen Poo, the executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and director of Caring Across Generations, both of which are part of the Care Can’t Wait Coalition.

“We've been simmering in a care crisis for decades, and we now have an opportunity to avert catastrophe in the future,” she argued, pointing to the benefits for working families and women, particularly women of color.

Harris’ town hall, which Poo moderated, is just the latest recognition for the coalition of advocates that have been crisscrossing the country to push for investing in caregivers.

Aside from the pandemic shining a spotlight on the lack of a national policy for caregivers, advocates also credit coalition building for getting them to this point.

Groups like the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Caring Across Generations and MomsRising are not new, with several having been around for a decade or more. Others, like Paid Leave for All and Paid Leave for the United States, or PL+US, have formed more recently.

Backers of paid leave policies frequently point out that the United States is one of the only rich nations with no federal paid leave policy in place. And fewer than a quarter of private sector workers in the U.S. had access to paid family leave as of March 2021, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, though that figure swings wildly based on workers’ income.

“Last weekend I was at the G-20, right before that the G-7, NATO on Monday,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at a Care Can’t Wait rally outside the Capitol on Thursday. “And when I explained to them what we're doing [on paid leave] they’re like, ‘You mean you don't have that already?’”

On the child care front, affordability and accessibility were issues long before the pandemic shut out even more providers. A survey from the Bipartisan Policy Center and Morning Consult in October 2019 found that almost a third of families earning less than $50,000 a year called it “very difficult” to find affordable child care. Only 10 percent of households earning more than $100,000 a year reported the same.

Cost isn’t the only barrier to child care for parents. One issue that Democrats are being forced to confront is staffing shortages that the pandemic only exacerbated. The National Association for the Education of Young Children found in a July survey that 80 percent of respondents from child care centers were reporting staffing shortages.

Efforts to address the care crisis have public support. A CBS/YouGov poll conducted earlier this month found that 73 percent of U.S. adults support funding for paid leave policies, including half of Republicans and 72 percent of independents.

Republicans in Washington have increasingly spoken out in favor of paid family leave and helping families with childcare expenses; Trump even signed a law granting six weeks of paid parental leave to federal workers.

But most Republicans in Congress, and several small business groups, oppose Democrats’ paid leave proposal and its price tag. In a House hearing on paid leave this summer, Elizabeth Milito, senior executive counsel for the National Federation of Independent Business, said the trade association opposes a “one-size-fits-all” paid leave mandate.

Republicans have instead promoted a plan to expand the employer-provided paid family and medical leave tax credit and creating new family savings accounts, among other things.

When House Ways and Means Committee Republicans put out their proposal in the spring, the committee’s ranking GOP member Kevin Brady (R-Texas) said their approach to child care and paid leave “puts families and Main Street businesses first, while Democrats’ one-size-fits-all socialist solution puts Washington first.”

That position puts Republicans at odds with the Chamber of Commerce, one of the party’s longtime allies in Washington, and a lobbying behemoth. The Chamber supports a nationwide policy that would make it easier on multi-state employers that right now have to navigate a patchwork of policies in different states. (The Chamber fiercely opposes the broader reconciliation bill, however.)

The country’s largest retail trade association, the National Retail Federation, also prefers a federal framework that would alleviate some of the financial burden on its members and preempt state and local laws.

While the pandemic ushered in a new era of urgency around paid leave and care issues, a number of advocacy groups were working beforehand to break down silos within the broader community, according to Dawn Huckelbridge, who heads Paid Leave for All.

“A number of the groups met and felt like there was this window of opportunity for paid leave, and that if we were going to get this law over the finish line, that there really needed to be a stronger alignment and a more organized public facing campaign” to coordinate strategy and share resources amongst themselves, she said.

Paid Leave for All members launched a war room not long into the pandemic, despite many being full-time caregivers. “And we’ve been kind of on all cylinders ever since,” she said.

For Poo, the spotlight on care issues is a “game-changing moment” for the country.

Before last year, “I think that most people really thought about caregiving as a personal burden and responsibility mainly to be shouldered by the women in the family,” she said. “And if you couldn't figure it out, if you couldn’t afford it, if you couldn't manage it, or if you couldn't find the care that you needed for your family, it was considered a personal failure.”

“We blamed ourselves and I think what we realized in the pandemic is that we have been and we are doing the very best we can. And we need public policy and collective solutions to be able to support us,” she added.

Now, advocates are vowing to leave nothing to chance as the White House and key factions of Democratic lawmakers search for ways to slash the bill’s cost without drawing too much blood.

As negotiations over the bill heated up this summer, advocacy groups blanketed congressional districts to meet lawmakers where they are, organized letter writing and phone campaigns and bus tours, and made six- and seven-figure TV, digital and billboard ad buys.

PL+US hired a new outside lobbying team that includes a former top aide to the No. 3 Senate Democrat, Patty Murray of Washington state. The group also debuted a political action committee last year, and has fundraised for at least one vulnerable Senate Democrat, New Hampshire’s Maggie Hassan. The Paid Family Leave PAC’s donors have included Melinda Gates, progressive tech investor Swati Mylavarapu and her husband, Nest co-founder Matt Rogers.

The PAC even cashed a check earlier this year from Maggie Cordish, a close friend of Ivanka Trump and a top adviser to the former president’s daughter on paid family leave, according to campaign finance disclosures.

But compared to some of Washington’s lobbying heavyweights, the advocates have a relatively paltry lobbying presence in the capital. The National Domestic Workers Alliance reregistered to lobby at the federal level this year for the first time since 2015, and disclosures show that through the end of September, the group had spent a little over $400,000. PL+US has spent only $70,000 through the end of September.

Instead, they’ve deployed some less conventional measures, from teaming up with Instagram influencers to holding daylong vigils outside of the Capitol and in swing vote lawmakers’ home states, to flying a plane with a banner reading “Care Can’t Wait” over a West Virginia football game.

The Service Employees International Union, which is a member of the Care Can’t Wait Coalition, has been hosting members of Congress and the press to show what a day in the life of care workers looks like, and last month announced that it was doubling the amount of money it’s spending on TV and digital ads promoting the reconciliation bill from $3.5 million to $7 million.

It's gotten backup from marquee names, too.

On Wednesday afternoon Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, made a rare political statement, writing to Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to warn the Democratic leaders that “paid leave should not be a place to compromise or negotiate.”

“No family should have to choose between earning a living and having the freedom to take care of their child (or a loved one, or themselves, as we would see with a comprehensive paid leave plan),” she wrote in the letter released by Paid Leave for All.

Advocates for robust investments in care issues also have major supporters within the Biden administration, which has dispatched numerous Cabinet officials from Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo to Labor Secretary Marty Walsh to Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra to tout the benefits of care policies.

One high-profile member of Biden’s Cabinet, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, just returned from paternity leave himself.

Still, supporters are not naive that the final package could look different than their preferred framework.

“I think it's really important that we establish building blocks here” and seize the opportunity “to invest in and build our caregiving infrastructure and programs in a way that we never have before,” said Poo, who argued that a comprehensive investment in caregivers “would be the largest direct investment in the creation of good jobs for women, that will directly benefit women of color, in the history of the country.”

Huckelbridge, the director of Paid Leave for All, noted that supporters “knew what our optimal program was out of the gate” but that “we also always knew that there could be a very meaningful and an equitable program accomplished at a smaller scale.” One of the group’s chief asks, she said, is that any program be permanent and accessible to “every single working person.”

Care issues have found a number of vocal champions in Congress, many of whom invoke their personal experience as caregivers in what advocates said was a side effect of more women than ever serving in Washington.

Lawmakers have been regular guests at town halls and rallies held by care advocates in recent weeks, further underscoring the groups’ sway.

“Where would we be without you?” House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who’s worked to secure the child tax credit for decades, said at the Care Can’t Wait rally Thursday.

The rally featured half a dozen other lawmakers including Pelosi, who referred to care policies as “the most transformative” elements of the eventual spending package, which she said would be the “biggest initiative we've ever passed in the Congress, dollars-wise and scope.”

Still, she conceded it is only a first step, albeit a good one, and pledged that Biden is “never going to stop” until he enacts more comprehensive care policies.

DeLauro was more bearish than the speaker about future opportunities to invest heavily in care infrastructure outside of the spending bill, as she called reports of just a one-year extension of the child tax credit a “mistake.”

One lawmaker, freshman California Rep. Sara Jacobs, spoke at the rally carrying her chief of staff’s infant son, whom Jacobs said needed to come into work today because his child care fell through at the last minute.

Earlier this week, after Biden reportedly informed a group of lawmakers that paid leave would be scaled back, more than 100 House Democrats and more than a dozen Senate Democrats wrote separate letters to the president, Pelosi and Schumer warning against shortchanging care workers in the package, pointing to paid leave’s popularity among voters and the hemorrhaging of women from the workforce since the pandemic began.

“The American public is aligned on the need, and it’s time for us to deliver on this critical promise to families,” the House members, led by Reps. Don Beyer (D-Va.), Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Judy Chu (D-Calif.), Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.), wrote. “There is no lasting recovery — no real rebuilding — without care.”

Care advocates hammer the economic consequences of the lack of a federal paid leave program, as well as the widespread political support for the issue, in their discussions with lawmakers.

“Women are pissed, you know?” said Giovanna Gray Lockhart, an adviser to PL+US. “They are just like — they are tired, they are exhausted, they are frustrated and I think they're going to vote that way ... in the next election.”

Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, the co-founder and chief executive of MomsRising, echoed that threat, cautioning that voters will take note if lawmakers fail to capitalize on a “once in a generation” opportunity.

“Moms turned out to vote in a pandemic, in record numbers,” she said. “And now is the time for the leaders that they helped elect to show that they heard the voices of moms, of dads and of businesses, about the urgent need for a care infrastructure.”

Ultimately, Poo said, the choice should be a “no brainer” for negotiators.

“Literally, this is life and death,” she warned. “It's not a ‘nice to have,’ and we saw that so clearly in the pandemic. The idea that ... we wouldn't be prioritizing big investments in the care economy coming out of what we've just been through, is disturbing.”