Paid family leave is (finally!) inevitable

Presidential candidates are talking about paid family leave — both for and against it — because they know this issue is top of mind for voters throughout the country. For American voters, family comes first. Whether it's for a newborn, an ailing parent, or a spouse nursing an injury, being there and providing for family isn't negotiable.

The question is whether we as a nation are going to let every family fend for themselves, or adopt a national solution that makes sure that putting family first doesn't mean losing your paycheck or your job. Voters are demanding policies that reflect this priority.

Chris Ryan | Getty Images

"It's about time we had paid family leave for American families and join the rest of the world," said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her opening remarks at the first Democratic debate.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders echoed: "We should not be the only major country that does not provide medical and — and parental leave — family and parental leave to all of our families."

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley built on the idea: "We would be a stronger nation economically if we had paid family leave."

The three Democratic front-runners are not the only ones speaking to this issue. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who's running in the Republican primary, has come out with his own paid family-leave proposal (albeit a severely flawed one), and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina devoted an entire blog post to defending her position against paid family leave.

Recent polling by "Make it Work," a campaign I co-founded to advance women and working families' economic issues, found that 75 percent of voters say they support a package of work-family policies that includes paid family leave, paid sick days, equal pay, affordable child care and a higher minimum wage. Fifty-six percent of voters said they are more likely to vote for a candidate who supports this plan.

And it's not just women. Fifty-five percent of men say they are more likely to vote for candidates who support this plan. The number of men who use the job protections of the current Family and Medical Leave Act to care for family members has been slowly but steadily increasing, and more and more men are calling for employers to adopt paid parental leave policies.

Paid family leave and other family-friendly policies are good for children, good for families, good for public health and, as Gov. O'Malley noted, good for the economy. In the states that have adopted paid leave – California, New Jersey and Rhode Island – both employers and employees report benefiting from the law. And in recent months, we've heard from companies like Netflix, Microsoft, Adobe, LinkedIn, Facebook, Google and others about their recently adopted generous paid leave policies for moms and dads. These policies aren't always perfect, but the idea that companies should be providing these supports for families – from 12 weeks to 52 weeks of fully paid leave – comes from the understanding that these policies are not only the right thing to do, but also good for business and retaining great employees.

We can't rely on companies to do it alone, or too many people will be left behind – especially low-income families who need paid leave the most. That's why presidential candidates are taking the matter into their hands. In the Democratic debate, Sec. Clinton pointed to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) as a champion of this issue. The Family Act, the bill championed by Gillibrand and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), would guarantee paid leave to care for new children and those with serious illnesses. With the right candidate, paid family and medical leave could finally become a reality in 2017.

Commentary by Vivien Labaton, co-founder and co-director of MakeIt Work, a campaign to advance economic security for working women, men and families. Follow her on Twitter at @vivienlab.