Candidates Differ On Relief For Working Families With workers losing jobs or scrambling to retain them, pressures intensify at home, too. What do the presidential nominees propose to ease Americans' work-family tensions? Sizable differences separate the two on issues such as family leave, sick time and child care.

Candidates Differ On Relief For Working Families

Weighing In On The Conversation

The Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit and nonpartisan New York-based research institution, explored work-family issues during two recent separate teleconferences with the McCain and Obama camps. They were represented by the advisers noted below:

McCain Advisers

John Bash, on the policy staff since July, had clerked for Justice Antonin Scalia since 2007. Earlier, he clerked for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Wendy Grubbs was a managing director of Citi Capital Markets & Banking for several years. Earlier, she worked in the Bush administration as special assistant to the president for legislative affairs and as deputy chief of staff to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.

Jay Khosla, health policy adviser, served as health counsel for Republicans on the U.S. Senate Budget Committee. He also served as health policy counsel for former Senate Majority Leader William H. Frist.

Obama Adviser

Karen Kornbluh, an economist, serves on Obama's Senate staff. Earlier, she directed the New America Foundation's Work and Family Program and served as a Treasury Department deputy chief of staff.

As the economy constricts, with workers losing jobs or scrambling to retain them, pressures intensify at home, too. What do presidential nominees John McCain and Barack Obama propose to ease Americans' work-family tensions?

Sizable differences separate the two camps on issues such as family leave and sick time, as well as child care.

McCain, who supports minimal government intervention, would form a bipartisan Commission on Workplace Flexibility and Choice to look at modernizing labor laws, promoting flexible scheduling and telework, among other things, advisers for the Republican senator from Arizona say.

Obama would broaden eligibility for federally protected family leave and would promote paid time off, along with increased support for child education and care, an adviser to the Democratic senator from Illinois says.

The Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit and nonpartisan New York-based research institution, explored these and other issues during two recent separate teleconferences with the McCain and Obama camps. FWI President Ellen Galinsky asked identical questions of each campaign's key advisers. (Complete summaries can be found here.) NPR reviewed their comments, adding data and other context for this story.

Advisers weighed in on issues including:

Family leave. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act requires businesses with 50 or more employees to allow up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for eligible workers to deal with birth or adoption; a seriously ill spouse, child or parent; or their own serious illness.

Obama supports broadening the 1993 law's reach and offering paid leave, making it more accessible to low-wage workers. He would extend job-protected leave to businesses with 25 or more employees, including those trying to cope with domestic violence and sexual assault. He would allow parents up to 24 hours of annual leave to participate in their children's academic activities at school. He would establish a $1.5 billion fund to encourage each state to adopt a paid leave system and to offset the cost to employees and employers.

McCain favors legislation such as the Family-Friendly Workplace Act, a House bill introduced this spring, which would give workers the option of banking extra hours in lieu of overtime pay.

Sick leave. Galinsky says surveys conducted by her institute "have shown that only 24 percent of low-wage workers have time off for sick kids."

McCain doesn't support mandated paid time off; he prefers letting the marketplace decide, perhaps by letting workers bank extra hours. His proposed health care plan would address "underlying problems," adviser Jay Khosla said, mainly by providing a refundable $5,000 tax credit for each family and $2,500 for individuals to buy health insurance.

Obama would require employers to provide seven paid sick days a year for workers to care for their own or family members' illnesses.

Child care and early education. Out of the nation's 77 million family households, 26.5 million have children 12 and younger at home, 2006 census data show.

McCain says there are plenty of federal programs for early child care and preschool — including Title 1, Head Start, Early Head Start, block grants and more — and sufficient federal and state spending, which his campaign estimates at roughly $25 billion. He would redirect those dollars, improving coordination among existing programs to increase the availability of high-quality care and education.

Others contend that current funding is insufficient, given that child care alone can rival rent or mortgage payments.

"We only serve 1 in 7 children eligible for federal child care assistance," said Helen Blank, public policy director for the National Women's Law Center and former child care director at the Children's Defense Fund, both in Washington, D.C. "We only provide Head Start to half the eligible 3- and 4-year-olds, and we provide Early Head Start to less than 3 percent of the eligible infants and toddlers."

Obama would implement a comprehensive plan for youngsters from birth through age 5, reallocating $10 billion a year from elsewhere in the federal budget. He'd quadruple the number of Early Head Start slots (90,000 children were enrolled in 2007), improve the quality of both it and Head Start; and increase funding for the child care development block grant (it was allocated nearly $5 billion for 2008). He would also make the dependent care tax credit more beneficial to low-income families. Available to all families, it provides a minimum 20 percent tax credit against child care expenses of up to $3,000 for one child or $6,000 for two or more. But it's not refundable, so those who don't owe income taxes don't benefit. Obama would allow low-income families to receive up to a 50 percent refundable credit for child care expenses.

The nonprofit, nonpartisan National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies' Web site offers a comparison chart with more specifics.

Elder care. A 2008 FWI survey shows 45 percent of wage and salaried employees have provided special attention or care for a relative age 65 or older during the past five years. With the number of U.S. residents in that age bracket projected to surge from nearly 40 million now to 71.5 million in 2030, elder care is a burgeoning issue.

McCain would let private industry lead. His campaign is identifying private companies that might set examples for flexible work schedules or subsidies to hire a caregiver. The senator from Arizona — a retirement mecca — endorses programs that enable ailing elders to stay in their homes instead of moving to institutionalized care.

Obama also would promote a home care option for older patients, among other things.

Workplace flexibility. McCain's proposed commission would explore issues such as telecommuting and flexible schedules, such as four-day workweeks or early or late starts. He opposes Internet taxes and any new cell phone taxes that would increase the costs of working from home.

Obama would increase federal incentives for telecommuting and would push the federal government to lead in adopting flexible work schedules. He would enable employees to formally petition their bosses to discuss flexible schedules.

Low-wage-worker supports. Among other things, McCain would double the dependent exemption — now at $3,500 per minor child — for married couples with adjusted gross incomes below $50,000. Beyond that reduction in taxable income, he would cut through red tape and make it "easier for families to access benefits they are entitled to," adviser John Bash said, noting that parents often work long hours and lack the time to wait in government offices.

Obama's plan would include raising the minimum wage and pegging it to inflation; expanding eligibility for the refundable earned income tax credit; and increasing availability of general benefits to parents who make child support payments.

Cost to taxpayers. The total projected costs for the candidates' proposals on these fronts are elusive.

Both campaigns "defer a lot of costs in this area," said David Gray, director of the workplace and family program for the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington, D.C. "It's much more difficult to compare the cost-benefit" than with, say, health care.

Gray, who said it was "significant that you have a Republican doing anything in this area," noted that McCain's proposed commission would cost little to establish, and "if you don't implement any recommendations, there's no cost."

In contrast, he says, "Obama has very real numbers: The most conservative is north of $1.6 billion, and it's fair to say it's a lot higher. Here you have one candidate who has very direct solutions and one who has indirect solutions, and we won't know what they are until the recommendations" come through.