Front Group Spotlight: The Pay-to-Play Agenda of the “Independent” Women’s Forum

Front Group Spotlight: The Pay-to-Play Agenda of the “Independent” Women’s Forum

ISSUE ONE—IWF Opposition to Paid Family and Medical Leave and Earned Sick Leave Policies During Covid-19 and Beyond

By Lisa Graves and Evan Vorpahl

What’s at Stake? The Covid-19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus the gaps in access to paid time off when American workers or their families get sick or need time to address their health.

In March, Congress passed a limited expansion of access to paid leave in the third COVID-19 relief bill, but as the New York Times noted: “such a temporary change in the law is also grossly insufficient. It would amount to a brief suspension of the harsh and dangerous reality that most low-paid workers cannot afford to stay home when they are sick,” which risks their own health and others if essential workers go to work sick. No American should have to choose between a paycheck and their health and the health of their family–as well as their friends, coworkers, and customers.

Since changing this policy would benefit the overwhelming majority of Americans who are not covered, what’s standing in the way? The main opponents of expanding these widely popular policies are GOP politicians, but they are being pushed by big business interests like the Chamber of Commerce and front groups tied to Charles Koch’s network of billionaires. One of the special interest groups that is playing an increasingly prominent role as the face of the opposition is the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF), which provides a woman’s voice for opposing measures that would benefit millions of American women.

FRONT GROUP FOR HIRE: THE INDEPENDENT WOMEN’S FORUM’S PAY-TO-PLAY AGENDA: IWF is a pay-to-play group that uses its “independent” branding to aid partisan right-wing politicians and the legislative wish lists of corporations. IWF has deep ties to the Koch family fortune and is funded by dark money groups tied to Leonard Leo and his benefactors as well as industries like Big Tobacco and PhRMA. This is the first article in True North Research’s new series, “Front Group Spotlight: The Pay-to-Play Agenda of the Independent Women’s Forum,” which will explore the dark money group and the reactionary agenda its funders support. The first issue focuses on its attacks on universal paid leave and    its veiled efforts to privatize Social Security through an IWF policy proposal that the GOP has co-opted.

IWF has attacked the expansion of leave in response to Covid-19 calling efforts to provide paid sick leave to frontline workers “radical” and part of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s “far-Left grab bag of ideas.” It has also attacked Democratic governors who issued stay-at-home orders urged by disease control experts.

IWF has argued that “a crisis is not the time for federal programs,” even as more than 36 million Americans have filed for unemployment during this pandemic and nearly 100,000 Americans have died —and millions have been affected by this contagious and debilitating disease. IWF has used its online platforms to cheer on right-wing lawmakers like Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), who tried to gut relief for American workers in the coronavirus aid package, and to attack progressive policymakers like Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI), who has defended stay-at-home orders as nearly 50,000 Michiganders have tested positive for Covid-19, nearly 5,000 of whom have died in the past few weeks, as of May 15, 2020.

Meanwhile, IWF has been promoting uplifting stories of coronavirus heroes and pushed its marketing to independent women that we’re all #InThisTogether, but it has also continued to fight against paid leave. IWF has a long history of opposing workplace reforms that benefit women and chief among those is how it has attacked access to Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML) and earned sick leave across the U.S.

IWF Has Tried to Redirect Public Support for Paid Leave Toward Borrowing from Social Security

  • Since 2018 IWF has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars pushing an “alternative” to PFML that it dubbed “Social Security Earned Leave.” For example, since 2014, the Bradley Foundation has given IWF some six-figure grants to IWF to develop messaging kits aimed at countering progressive positions on paid leave, childcare, raising the minimum wage, and the Affordable Care Act and to erode their popular support by pushing “free market” claims. (In 2016, IWF and IWV also spent more than $3 million on outreach to independent women voters on the ACA: IWV claimed it helped Trump win the election by moving Wisconsin women toward him.)
  • IWF’s leave proposal is not real alternative: it excludes most family medical leave – allowing it only for birth or adoption— and it provides no leave benefits for Americans to care for themselves or their parents, children, or spouses if they become sick.
  • IWF’s proposal lets employers off the hook from contributing to help employees and instead it would have Americans borrow from their future Social Security benefits, making parents work longer to retire rather than allow a tiny federal payroll deduction.
  • The IWF proposal is basically the GOP proposal, with some variations by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and others, which fails to address the real needs of Americans but does give Republicans a talking point to say they are trying to address problems American families face. IWF has also told state lawmakers in the American Legislative Exchange Council that they need to support IWF’s policy on leave because the issue is so popular.
  • IWF has bragged that this would open up the Social Security Trust Fund to borrowing, which advances the group’s long-term goal of privatizing Social Security and other social programs that people rely on, stating: “This approach could encourage an important mental shift with lasting implications for government’s safety nets more broadly. This could include how Americans think about Social Security, which has long been considered the untouchable third rail of politics.”

IWF has also supported other proposals as PFML “alternatives” that do not actually provide Paid Family and Medical Leave, such as:

  • Frontloading child tax credits, as urged by Sens. Lee (R-UT) and Synema (D-AZ); 
  • Expanding Health Savings Acts (HSAs)—as with Rep. Andy Biggs’ (R-AZ) “Freedom for Families Act,” which many cannot afford. IWF has also peddled Personal Care Accounts and private charity instead of state paid leave laws; and
  • Substituting paid time off (PTO) for overtime pay.

IWF Has Been Increasingly Active across the U.S. in Fighting Popular Paid Leave Proposals

  • Federal:  IWF policy director Hadley Heath testified against the FAMILY Act in the House Ways and Means Committee in Jan. 2020 (IWF has opposed the bill since it was introduced in 2013).
  • Virginia: IWF’s Ashley MacLeay testified against a paid leave bill in Virginia in 2019 and IWF’s (c)(4), the Independent Women’s Voice, distributed misleading talking points against the bill. 
  • Colorado: IWF’s Hadley Heath was appointed to the paid leave task force in Colorado and used that platform to oppose a statewide paid leave proposal that then stalled in the legislature.
  • Other states: IWF president Carrie Lukas has written an op-ed attacking the Granite Caregiving Act (NH). IWF has also attacked paid leave policy implementation in California and New Jersey.

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If you have questions about the Independent Women’s Forum or its efforts to block the expansion of paid leave, please contact Kyle Moler at kyle@littlething.co

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