Although 73 percent of Americans want the federal government to do more to expand access to paid leave, Republicans and Democrats are unlikely to agree to major legislation anytime soon. Yet this doesn’t mean that Congress can’t also make meaningful progress to help workers now.
The Working Families Flexibility Act, introduced by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), would amend the woefully out-of-date Fair Labor Standards Act to allow workers eligible for overtime pay to opt for more paid time off, rather than extra pay. Government workers’ have long enjoyed this option: Rather than getting paid time-and-a-half for every hour worked overtime, they can earn an extra hour-and-a-half of paid leave. Private-sector workers deserve this option too.
The ability to earn more paid leave would be beneficial for all workers — particularly women. Someone who is pregnant could try to work overtime to bank paid leave time for after the baby’s birth. Parents of young children or people caring for elderly parents or other family members could similarly seek opportunities to work overtime in order to accrue more paid time off to use when they need it. Workers eligible for overtime are less likely to have traditional paid leave benefits, making this reform particularly important.
Similarly, Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) has proposed a bill called the Freedom for Families Act that would reform Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) to give workers the option to use the funds in their HSAs to make up for pay lost during absences from work for qualifying illnesses or life events. Families have long used HSAs to cover medical expenses, but under current law only those enrolled in high-deductible health plans are eligible to open and contribute to these tax-advantaged accounts.
This bill would eliminate that restriction so that anyone could open and use an HSA. Additionally, the Freedom for Families Act would expand HSA contribution limits from $3,500 to $9,000 for individuals and from $7,000 to $18,000 for married couples, giving families a chance to accrue more funds and therefore be more financially secure in the event of a family or medical event.
Of course, neither of these bills would solve the entire paid leave problem. But they’d help many people and be an important step in the right direction of giving workers more flexibility and better options.
Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Calif.) also has a noteworthy proposal, called the Expanding Access to Retirement Savings for Caregivers Act. Although it doesn’t relate to paid leave, it’s another small, but important measure Congress should take to help caregivers and enhance financial security.
Under current law, the IRS allows those over age 50 to make annual catch-up contributions to their tax-advantaged retirement savings accounts. Rep. Rounda proposes expanding eligibility for catch-up contributions, so that someone who took at least one year out of the workforce to care for a family member could start making catch up contributions before age 50. This would benefit people (disproportionately women) who have sacrificed for their families, giving them more opportunity to put away additional earnings and start earning more interest earlier in anticipation of retirement.
This proposal would only help those who have enough disposable income to make use of retirement savings vehicles. But, especially given that women tend to have less saved for retirement than men do, it’s a measure worth taking to help those who can use it.
The economy is growing, unemployment has plummeted, and wages, at long last, are rising. Congress can help people make use of these positive trends by encouraging savings for future needs, whether that’s time off from work, for medical expenses, or for retirement. Each of these proposals may sound relatively modest, but they are important steps to modernizing our employment and savings systems, which would ultimately help more people help themselves.