How Joe Biden’s COVID-19 Paid Family Leave Plan Could Work

It's not the permanent guaranteed leave law Americans deserve, but it's a good start.


Like marijuana legalization and raising the minimum wage, guaranteed paid family and medical leave for workers is a progressive policy that voters have long favored but politicians have failed to act on. The COVID-19 pandemic, which workers have borne the brunt of, has renewed the push for paid family leave as even a Republican president passed the FFCRA which included emergency paid sick leave last year. But that plan has expired, and a new push for paid family and medical leave is on the way. But it still might not pass.

The paid family leave plan is a big part of Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 rescue package which, while hardly etched in stone, appears likely to pass through the Democratic-controlled houses of Congress mostly in its original form. It remains to be seen whether or not paid leave will be a part of that plan due to budget reconciliation issues. Paid family and medical leave are among the less controversial aspects of Biden’s plan, and it follows a similar (if less expansive effort) that passed Congress last year, otherwise known as the FFCRA.

Yes, you may be asking: wait, didn’t Congress already pass paid family and medical leave through the Families First Act (FFCRA) in 2020? Yes, they did — but it expired, and now there’s a fight to get it back. Here are the answers to all your questions, including how Biden’s version of FMLA leave or paid family and medical would work, why it’s necessary, and if it will pass again.

Didn’t Congress Already Pass the FFCRA Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act Last Year?

Yes. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, signed by former President Trump all the way back in March, provided two weeks (up to 80 hours) of paid sick leave at their regular rate of pay for workers who couldn’t work due to quarantine orders and/or COVID-19 symptoms. Workers who were needed to care for someone else in quarantine or a kid whose school or daycare was closed for COVID-19 reasons received two weeks of pay at two-thirds of their regular rate.

The FFCRA also gave workers up to ten more weeks of paid family and medical leave at two-thirds of their pay rate when workers were required to be at home for COVID-related reasons. But alas, it was limited in two principal ways.

First, only some public employers and private employers with fewer than 500 employees were required to follow these rules. Second, it expired at the end of 2020, which means there is currently no federal guarantee that any private-sector workers can take medical leave. The good news is that it has been found to have limited the spread of COVID-19 pretty significantly — making the need to renew the plan all the more intense.

Who Would Be Covered Under Biden’s Paid Family Leave Plan?

Biden wants to do away with the rules that exempted large employers (those with 500 or more) and small employers (50 or less) that were in the FFCRA.

First responders, who were specifically excluded from the FFCRA, would also be brought back into the fold under his new plan. All in all, these changes would mean up to 106 million more workers would have emergency paid leave — which would be massive.

Two million federal employees, who received the two weeks of sick leave but not the months of paid family leave in the FFCRA, would now receive both.

What Does Biden’s Paid Family and Medical Leave Plan Guarantee?

The ten weeks of paid sick and family and medical leave to help with caregiving in the FFCRA would be expanded to 14 under Biden’s plan, with the added condition that it can be taken to facilitate COVID-19 vaccine appointments.

Employers with fewer than 500 employees would receive tax credits that would reimburse them for the cost of paid leave, and state and local governments would similarly be reimbursed.

Is Biden’s Paid Family Leave Permanent?

No. This extension of paid leave is framed as an “emergency measure” that would end on September 30, and the United States would regain its ignominious place outside of the 145 countries in the world that offer paid sick leave to their citizens – unless, of course, the plan shifted the Overton window and made real, all-around paid family leave a regular benefit of being a citizen of the United States.

Considering paid family leave was a lynchpin of Biden’s presidential campaign, and one that then-Presidential candidate and now VP Kamala Harris also supported, there’s reason to believe that the plan could eventually be made permanent — if partisan gridlock doesn’t get in the way, and if it can pass at all.

Will His Paid Leave Plan Pass?

Right now, it’s unclear. Reports surfaced in early February that suggested that Democrats might have to abandon plans to pass paid leave as a part of their $1.9 trillion stimulus package because it couldn’t pass through the budget reconciliation process. The alternative would be tax credits to employers who provide paid leave, which would leave out lots of workers from paid leave, but would still be better than nothing. Of course, Democrats could always abolish the filibuster, and make it so they could pass legislation (like paid leave) with a simple filibuster. But it remains to be seen whether or not they will actually do that, which could mean that a full paid family leave program was a temporary moment of 2020 and not a reality in 2021.