Senator Tammy Duckworth Can Take Her Baby to Work, But Mothers in Her State Still Don't Have Paid Maternity Leave

Updated | Senator Tammy Duckworth made history on Thursday, when she brought her newborn daughter onto the Senate floor to cast her vote. It was a hard-won victory for Duckworth, who'd worried that the Senate rules would prevent her from doing her job and caring for her child at the same time.

But it wasn't necessarily a victory for mothers everywhere, who are still fighting for basic paid family leave policies, including private sector employees in Duckworth's home state of Illinois.

"Senator Duckworth is very lucky to be able to set the rules in her own workplace, but there are a lot of women out there who don't have that opportunity," Brigid Leahy, the senior director of public policy at Planned Parenthood Illinois, told Newsweek. "There are a lot of women out there who don't have that opportunity. They need the financial stability to stay home with their kids, and good quality childcare so they can go back to work when they're ready."

Currently, the Family and Medical Leave Act, signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1993, grants new parents in Illinois and nationwide 12 weeks of unpaid leave. The problem is, many women can't afford to sacrifice three months of pay, forcing them to go back to work before they feel ready.

"This period of time is really important for people who have a baby—the baby needs bonding time and it's important for a woman to recover from delivery," Leahy said. "But there are a lot of Illinois families living paycheck to paycheck, and for them, going 12 weeks, or even four or six weeks, without pay is going to be very difficult."

.@SenDuckworth, holding baby Maile, departs the Senate floor after casting her vote. How does it feel? “It’s amazing, and it’s about time.”

— Betsy Klein (@betsy_klein) April 19, 2018

Women's groups in Illinois like Women Employed, a Chicago-based organization advocating for women in the workplace, have long been pushing for paid family leave.

The group has met with the Democratic state legislators who have sponsored sister bills in the Illinois General Assembly that would require employers to offer 12 weeks of paid leave to new parents. State Senator Daniel Biss's version stalled in committee last year, but its equivalent in the House, introduced by Representative Mary Flowers, is still active, and got its third reading in March.

"We need to allow people to balance work and family," Melissa Josephs, the director of equal opportunity policy at Women Employed, told Newsweek. "Employers have to realize women can be good employees and have other things in their lives. Giving them paid leave is a small adjustment in the grand scheme of things."

As Illinois moves toward paid family leave in fits and sputs, it's slow going on the federal level.

President Donald Trump, who most recently spoke out in support of paid family leave in his State of the Union address in January, has entrusted his daughter, White House senior adviser Ivanka Trump, and his former presidential opponent, Republican Senator Marco Rubio, with the task of selling the GOP on the idea.

"We still have to work on members of my own party," Rubio told Politico in February. "I think there will be significant initial resistance to it, because it's just not an issue that's been identified with the Republican Party." At the time, Rubio had "barely started" drafting a paid leave bill, according to the outlet, which he imagined would allow people to withdraw Social Security funds when they wanted to take time off for a newborn.

"Passing paid family leave is critical for the economic security of working parents," Rubio told Newsweek in a Friday statement. "I welcome the further study of how to finance paid leave, and hope it might help us improve any future legislation, including how to strengthen Social Security for all moms and dads." A spokesperson from the senator's office told Newsweek that though there's still no bill, "we're beginning to see Republicans rally behind an issue that is typically associated with the left. The momentum is encouraging."

The White House did not immediately respond to Newsweek's request for comment.

Some criticized the Rubio-Ivanka proposal at the outset, with Washington Post columnist Elizabeth Bruenig arguing that it would inherently punish those who had more children than others—or who had children at all. Bruenig also worried that the plan would unfairly impact people's ability to retire at a reasonable age, and penalize people for having children later in life.

"It's a highly individualized way of dealing with the facts of family life—which by their nature are communal issues: Babies and children need caregivers, mothers and fathers need time and money to give care, elderly grandparents and great-grandparents need companionship and assistance," Bruenig wrote at the time. "There is a place for every stage of the life cycle in the grand order of things, and a just state would ideally defer to that natural rhythm."

There's still little consensus on the best way to approach paid family leave, and how it might work in practice. But most agree that the extent to which the United States lags on the issue is unacceptable—the U.S. remains the only developed country in the world that doesn't offer a universal paid maternity leave policy.

"Sometimes I'm just amazed at how fast certain issues come up on the state or federal level and are just zipped through the process because the political will is there," Leahy said. "There are so many families making very difficult decisions right now. If there's the will, they could make it happen."

This story has been updated to include comment from Senator Marco Rubio's office.