How Joe Fain Made Parental Leave a Personal, Bipartisan Issue
"I think we have created a model that the rest of the country can follow."
Republicans and Democrats currently serving in state and federal legislative bodies are struggling to reach across the aisle while playing to voting bases that seem to agree on nothing. That unfortunate fact throws the remarkable achievement of Washington State Senator Joe Fain, a Republican in a blue state, into stark relief. Fain worked with colleagues from both parties to create a progressive parental leave programs. Senator Fain, a a father himself, succeeded by treating paid leave as a personal and economic issue rather than a political one. It was a smart move, most Americans are supportive of the idea of parental leave. It’s one a very few things where agreement can be sought and found.
With his family leave program in full effect, Fain hopes to see the rest of the country follow suit and make sure that dads are able to be there for their child’s crucial first weeks. Fatherly spoke to Fain about whether his success could provide Republicans in the nation’s capital with a game plan on an issue President Trump has expressed interest in pursuing.
Could you tell me a little about your son’s birth? In a way, that feels like the most important political event in the lead-up to the passage of a new Washington law, which is kind of a lovely thing.
It was a very very long delivery and a complicated one. Eventually, we had to do a c-section. I just remember the moment where the doctors picked him up and brought him over to the table. I’ve got my new baby boy and he’s five feet from me, but there’s my wife after this major surgery. I was thinking, Where should I be right now? I didn’t want to leave my wife then she was like, ‘Get over there and tell me what you see.’
I was shocked by two things: how absolutely beautiful he was and how much hair he had on his head. Oh my lord. You would have thought he had a toupee on. He had this huge full head of hair. He was a healthy little kid and it was just great to be there for that moment.
And, I would imagine, it was rewarding to not go straight back to work.
It was really rewarding to be there for the hundreds of moments that followed for the next several months. You just can’t replace that.
Building off what you were saying about the bill, one of the most remarkable aspects of it is that you are a Republican in a Democratic state who was able to pass this piece of legislation. Can you talk about why you think parental leave is becoming a bipartisan issue in a time of so much divide?
I don’t really care if they are Republican or Democrat arguments, it’s what makes sense to me. Number one, small businesses, from an economic standpoint, want to be able to recruit and retain top talent. Top talent cares about benefits, like having time to spend with their newborn child. It’s sometimes financially impossible, in a real competitive market, for small businesses to be able to offer a program that allows them to compete with that kind of benefit from a large company. This is a way to level the playing field for businesses small and large and from sector to sector so that we create a new baseline and give access to paid leave for families in all sectors and income levels.
Obviously, the strongest social argument is we know what the factors and figures say about bonding and the importance of having two parents there for the formidable times in a child’s life. Not just so that child is able to come into the world and bond with both parents and acclimate to an environment in which their actual mom and dad are there, but also because for parents, especially new parents, this is an entirely new world.
You don’t think enough is being done to give parents the opportunity to exist in that moment.
If they are back at work the next day, parents diminish this monumental experience they just had. I think that, in the service of the strength and the cohesiveness of families, it’s time for people to not only have the opportunity to spend time with their newborns but for that to be a social norm. First we have to provide that opportunity. Then we create a social norm. It is best for the long term health of the child and the family that bother mothers and fathers take time off.
With companies such as Microsoft and Amazon leading the trend for parental leave for their employees, what do you think is particular about Washington state that is helping it lead the charge?
The market forces they are responding to is a generation of employees that are really demanding to have this. This is important to them. This is something that they will look to when they are trying to decide whether or not to work for Company A or Company B. I think they are responding to the public asking for it.
The other issue is the companies you just named are really large and have a fair amount of cash on hand and can sell their goods for a good profit. It would be natural that these would be the first to do that, but that’s why it is so important to have a system like this in the law that we have passed because it opens the doors for companies that aren’t the fastest growing companies on the planet like Amazon. It opens the door for companies to have the same opportunities for their employees.
Currently, there are only four other states California, New York, Rhode Island, and New Jersey that offer parental leave. What are the steps we have to make to ensure there are national parental leave laws in place?
First, I’d say what Washington did was unique. We’re the first state that didn’t have a temporary disability program already on the books. In a way, these other states layered this family and parental leave as being an added benefit or reason for paid leave on top of this disability program that the states already operated. Washington didn’t have that. We really had to create the system from scratch. We are the first state to do that.
I think we have created a model that the rest of the country can follow at a state level to be able to do that. In terms of whether or not there is a national plan that comes forward in the years ahead, I think that would be great. But, I don’t think it should stall states from creating their own programs in the meanwhile. Because, as we know, the best way states to spur federal action is to take the lead.
Is there anything you want to say in summary about the importance of parental leave?
The thing about family leave is more people are going to get access to this, but access isn’t enough. We need, dads in particular, to make the choice that this is something we are going to do with that time. It is not the social norm yet for fathers, but it should be and it can be. If you’re a dad, a new dad, or a soon to be dad, and you have access to a leave program and you are deciding whether or not you are going to take advantage of it… stop thinking about it and do it. It will change your life.
Is there a particular moment you remember that happened during the days you took off to be with your son after he was born? Anything that just stuck in your mind?
The first time he fell asleep on me. He was just kind of sitting there on the rocking chair and he looks up, grabs my finger and with what little muscle strength stuff he had, curled in and knocked out. I could feel the weight of him just laying there on my chest and it was like, ‘Ok. I think I like this.’
There are a lot of people–on both sides of the aisle–who agree with you, but does that ultimately matter in an era defined by hyper-partisan politics? How can we rise above the rancor to make a good thing happen for American families?
Modern politics have broken into Democrats and Republicans, labor and business, nonprofits and social action groups, left and right. The way this bill worked was that everyone sat at a table and listened to one another. Because politics, at the end of the day, is decision makers sitting in a room finding enough common ground to move forward and that can only happen with a willingness to listen and compromise. That’s not something we associate with politics nowadays, but, to paraphrase John McCain, there are people out there who profit by our dysfunction and failure and we have to be able to say, ‘To hell with them.’