Paid family leave takes step forward in U.S. Senate

Support for Paid family leave advanced in the U.S. Senate yesterday, as lawmakers heard testimony on its benefits in a key Children and Families Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill.

During the hearing—which was requested by U.S. Senator Kay Hagan—North Carolina business owners, advocates, and representatives of working families made the case for why paid family medical leave policies benefit both employees and businesses. Such programs allow workers to recover from a serious illness or care for a sick loved one or new child without risking their job or the income they need. The hearing renewed a call for a universal family and medical leave insurance program that doesn’t shoulder all the burden of cost on employers.

Currently the Family and Medical Leave Act is the only federal law designed to help working people succeed both as providers and caregivers. It leaves out 40 percent of the workforce and guarantees only unpaid leave, which millions cannot afford. Only 12 percent of U.S. workers have access to paid family leave through their employers, and less than 40 percent have personal medical leave through an employer-provided temporary disability program. This means millions of workers who develop serious health conditions, have seriously ill family members or become parents are forced to choose between providing care or having the income they need to cover basic expenses.

In North Carolina, 77 percent of mothers with children under 18 work, and 44 percent of workers have no access to paid sick days, let alone paid family medical leave. Low-income workers have it even worse off and are often given no flexibility in their work schedules at all.

Two North Carolinians testified at the hearing. Jeannine Sato is a resident of Durham, NC and member of NC MomsRising. Sato’s previous employer denied her extended leave after the birth of her first child. She said:

We are human – to pretend that people don’t get sick and that they don’t give birth just doesn’t make sense….Families should have the opportunity to care for their loved ones without the risk of losing their jobs or falling into poverty…. America needs to step up and join the rest of the industrialized world in offering paid family leave in order to be competitive and humane.

Kevin Trapani, CEO of the Morrisville-based insurance consulting firm The Redwoods Group, also testified to the benefits and opportunities paid family leave policies provide his 80 employees.

When employees take paid leave, they are more likely to return to our company; this saves us costs of interviewing, hiring, and retraining. Of course, it’s necessary to cover the work of an employee on leave, which some may see as a challenge. However, at Redwoods, we’ve discovered that this so-called challenge is actually a real opportunity for the business. Since we cover the work of an employee on leave by sharing it across the team, our junior team members get a chance to learn and take on new responsibilities, furthering their development.

Yesterday’s subcommittee hearing is the latest sign of the growing commitment by lawmakers on Capitol Hill and throughout the U.S. to find a solution that can help every working family meet the dual demands of job and family. State family and medical leave insurance programs have already been successful in California, New Jersey and Rhode Island. In Washington State, a paid leave program awaits funding. New York is the next state likely to pass a family leave insurance program. Vermont, Connecticut and New Hampshire have each approved a task force to explore the issue, and several other states, including Colorado, Hawaii, Nebraska and Wisconsin are laying the groundwork for similar legislation.

Given the successes in other states and Senator Hagan’s leadership in DC, it’s time for state lawmakers to promote a paid family medical leave policy right here in North Carolina. The whole economy gains when working families have enough money in their pockets to cover the basics and maintain their economic stability during a family health crisis or following the birth or adoption of a baby.

For more information on the importance of paid family medical leave for the caregiving industry, see this recent report released by the N.C. Justice Center. Additionally, read the personal stories of working people across the country who benefitted from affordable family leave or suffered due to the lack of protection.

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