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Work and family high on Dems’ agenda

Hillary Wicai Jan 10, 2007
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KAI RYSSDAL: When Nancy Pelosi picked up the gavel as the Speaker of the House last week, she brought a whole bunch of little kids up to the chair to touch that very gavel. It was a great photo-op, to be sure. But it also illustrated some changing congressional priorities.

The House has been debating the minimum wage today. And they’ll be looking into cuts in student loan interest rates next week. Not so unexpected from a majority that won with strong backing from labor. But the Democrats have other things planned that’ll be of interest to working families. As it happens, Hillary Wicai, our Work and Family reporter, is in Washington.

Hi, Hillary.

HILLARY WICAI: Hi, there.

RYSSDAL: So now that the House has tackled minimum wage, what’s going to happen on the other side of the rotunda there?

WICAI: Well, in the Senate, similar legislation has been introduced, and the Democratic leadership hopes to be able to start that debate sometime next week, and vote on the issue the week after that. But, now, Democrats have a much slimmer majority over there in the Senate, and minimum wage is not likely to pass unless the Democrats allow for at least some . . . we’ll call ’em sweeteners: Some sort of tax-break package for small business. Sources says something in the neighborhood of about 10 billion might get through.

RYSSDAL: All right, after the 100 hours is done, Hillary, and they’ve taken care of everything that they want to take care of, what else work-and-family-wise are the Democrats thinking about for this session?

WICAI: Well, Kai, by next month you should see bills in both the House and Senate that would guarantee American workers at least seven paid sick days — if they’re full-time workers. And a pro-rated amount if they’re part-time. Democrats like Senator Ted Kennedy and Representative Rosa DeLauro over in the House have introduced similar bills in the past, you know, that basically went nowhere. But this time around, the Democrats are already working on scheduling hearings. And you should expect some hearings on paid sick days in the middle of next month.

RYSSDAL: They’re doing this because, although you get paid sick days, I get paid sick days, member of Congress probably get paid sick days, a whole lot of American workers don’t.

WICAI: That’s right. About half of full-time, private-sector workers, and about three-quarters of low-wage workers don’t have a single, paid sick day. And, this is kind of gross, but 85 percent of food service workers don’t have a single, paid sick day. And the bills would also allow workers to use those sick days to stay at home, not only taking care of themself, but to care for a sick child, or a spouse or a sick parent.

RYSSDAL: That goes into a bigger piece of legislation that I think is also under review — the Family and Medical Leave Act, right?

WICAI: Yeah, I think you should absolutely expect to see some action on the Family and Medical Leave Act. This is the law that protects Americans’ jobs so that they can take unpaid time off for a bad family illness or to have a baby, for example. So, there are bills in the works, both in the House and the Senate, that would expand that job protection to smaller businesses under 50 employees and also provide a couple of different ways, couple of different ideas, to provide paid leave for those employees while they’re taking that time off.

RYSSDAL: Not to rain on the Democrats’ parade here, Hillary, but they were also talking for months and months about returning to pay-as-you-go budgeting — that is to say, you have to offset any new expenses with some trims in budgets. How are they going to make all of this work?

WICAI: Well, and that’s exactly the dilemma that Democrats are going to face with a lot of these bigger problems. These could be some expensive solutions, especially when you’re talking about huge work and family issues like childcare, for example. And the House did just adopt a pay-as-you-go rule. And so, I think that’s why you should expect to see some action first, in terms of work and family issues, on things like paid sick days, which would be a big break for lots of American workers, especially for those trying to protect their job and take care of a sick kid. But, it wouldn’t cost the government very much.

RYSSDAL: More to come, I’m sure, Washington-wise, on the work-and-family world. Hillary Wicai covers the issue for us in Washington. Thanks, Hillary.

WICAI: You bet.

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