Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Photo: Getty

Earlier this spring, Ariel Eckblad returned to work as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s legislative director following twelve weeks of paid parental leave with her new baby. In another congressional office, several things might have gotten in the way of that time: for one, congressional staffers are not guaranteed any paid leave and Eckblad was one of three on a small team who were expectant or new parents within the congresswoman’s first six months in office.

But Ocasio-Cortez decided to offer her staffers twelve weeks of paid parental leave anyway, and Eckblad felt comfortable taking it, because the team was designed to handle multiple absences in an effort to be family-friendly.

In Congress, paid parental leave is left up to individual employers, just as it is in workplaces across the United States. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act ensures that certain employees are granted twelve weeks unpaid leave, but few can afford three months without income. A handful of states have instituted paid parental leave laws, but as The New Yorker put it, “the majority of U.S. employers do not offer paid family leave, for the simple reason that they don’t have to.”

In February, Democrats reintroduced the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, which would allow for twelve weeks of paid family leave funded by a payroll tax shared between employers and employees. More recently, Republicans introduced a paid family leave bill that would require parents to borrow from Social Security benefits and delay retirement. Donald Trump has proposed six weeks of paid leave—merely half of what Ocasio-Cortez is giving her employees—in his 2020 budget, while leaving the details of implementation up to individual states. (Some activists have called the proposal “an empty shell.”)

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Often, potential hardships—like a small team facing multiple absences—are used to argue against mandated paid leave. But, as Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter, she instituted this policy despite the potential hardship it might introduce for her small team with new and expectant parents. She explained how they would make it work: paying a living minimum wage to junior staffers means workers aren’t forced to take second jobs. As a result, she continued, “senior staffers are confident enough in them to take parental leave and not feel like everything will fall apart.”

To talk more about the policy and how it works, Jezebel spoke with Eckblad about her own experience in the freshman congresswoman’s office, the current push for paid parental leave, and the insidious framing behind Republican’s approach to the issue. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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JEZEBEL: What did your twelve weeks of paid leave mean for you?

ARIEL ECKBALD: As a working mother, for me, it was really important to be able to have a significant amount of time to bond with and take care of my newborn. Very often that is thought of as something that is nice but not a must-have for all parents—so, not just mothers but mothers and fathers. It’s really important to shift that frame and I was so excited to join an office where that frame had been shifted for me. I didn’t have to do any advocating.

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Were you already pregnant by the time you joined the team?

I was seven months pregnant when I joined the team and it was actually a great concern for me, the idea of joining the team and then after probably four to eight weeks, depending on when I delivered, leaving. The representative said to me, explicitly, “Listen, if you don’t want to take the job because of what the work will be or because of the substance, that’s fine. But if you’re not taking the job because you’re pregnant, I don’t accept that. We will find a way to make it work, we will find a way to make sure that we have talented people on our team that also have families.” She wanted to figure out how to make that possible.

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Three members of your small team are expectant or new parents in a short period of time. How has the office dealt with staff absences?

People rise to the occasion. It would be a myth to suggest that other people don’t have to shoulder additional work or figure out how to reprioritize so that the things that are critical and time-sensitive occur. Yeah, that happens, and that’s important to note, but it’s worth it. Making those adjustments is worth it, because this is a natural part of the human experience, deciding to start a family and deciding how to do it and trying to do it in a way that allows you to continue to work, or not work, should you choose.

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This idea that, oh, we can’t do it because it might impose a burden on some societal factor, well, yes it will be difficult, potentially—but it’s something that we need to figure out and address head-on. That difficulty isn’t a stopping point. We don’t presuppose because it might necessitate some adjustment or reimagining of work that we don’t figure out how to do this in an elegant way. So, in our office that’s what we’re constantly trying to do. We want good people, we want people who are able to live their full lives, as they define them, and we need to figure out how to make that possible for everyone involved.

Ocasio-Cortez has argued that giving dads less paid parental leave than moms contributes to the pay gap. Why is that?

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My thought is this: There is this often explicit but sometimes tacit assumption that childrearing is the job of the mother. But childrearing is the job of the humans that have collectively decided to raise that child. When you have institutional setups that reify that—that say, oh, actually, dads don’t need time because it’s not their job to child-rear—it’s problematic. It creates expectations for employers who presuppose, “If I hire a woman in a certain age range, she might leave, but if I hire a man, I know he won’t.”

Your office gives mothers and fathers equal paid family leave. Why?

Both men and women, mothers and fathers, need to have space to bond with their child, to figure out the routine with their newborn, to learn what it means to be the parent of a baby. This is one of the most paradigm shifting events that can occur in anyone’s life and that deserves time and space to figure out how to evolve into this new role. Again, there are these societal assumptions that are sometimes expressed and sometimes tacit that women are supposed to be the people who are in charge of childrearing and that’s erroneous, that’s based in patriarchy. We need to reimagine that frame and one way of doing so is saying: Men, women, mothers, fathers, are equally a part of this process.

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What do you think of the proposed six weeks of paid family leave in Donald Trump’s 2020 budget?

It’s not sufficient.

What do you think is the minimum necessary?

I would defer to people who study this, but I will say from personal experience: six weeks is not enough. It’s not enough time to recover from birthing a child, it’s not a sufficient amount of time to figure out a schedule with a newborn, it’s not a sufficient amount of time if you’re trying to establish breastfeeding and milk supply. There are so many things that have to be done in that period and six weeks is... no.

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Republicans have introduced legislation to allow people to access Social Security benefits for paid parental leave. What do you think of that approach?

This is why it’s problematic: it is very easy to create the pretense of scarcity. It is really easy to say: we can’t pay for “blank,” unless we take from another good that you are socially entitled to. It’s almost like “feel the pain, because there isn’t enough for us to provide this service otherwise.” That’s wrong. I firmly believe that we in America can do what European countries and Canada—and, I mean, just insert other nations that are much more progressive in this space—have done. We can figure out a way to do it without taking away another social safety net that is equally needed. They’re operating under false pretenses.

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It shifts the dynamic and conversation once you’re operating under an assumption of scarcity, right?

Which is what happens all the time. When you’re thinking about dismantling various systems of oppression, the counter narrative is often, “Oh, well, we’ll have to take from that group. If we give this to you, we’ll have to take from them.” Absolutely not.

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How likely are we to see the adoption of a paid parental leave nationwide?

I’m going to remain hopeful. We’re going to do everything we can to make it come to fruition.