Editorial: Everyone wants family leave, but at what cost?

The push for a federal family leave benefit has been building ever since the two-income family became the norm two, maybe three decades ago, and single mothers became a larger part of the nation’s demographic. And it makes good sense. With both parents working full-time jobs, what are the options when a child, or aging family member, is sick for a prolonged period?
The obvious solution is that one parent or the other has to get time off work to care for that family member.
Currently, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, about 14 percent of American civilian workers have access to paid family leave. As of 2017, only three states — California, Rhode Island and New Jersey — had passed paid family leave programs, with four more states and the District of Columbia passing plans to go into effect by 2020.
The NCSL also reports that the federal government and most states are way behind other developed countries on this issue. Way back in 2011, the median paid leave given to mothers having a baby was 42 weeks for countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (many of America’s western allies and those considered developed nations.)
And know this: The United States is the only industrialized country without a national paid leave mandate.
What the U.S. did do, under President Bill Clinton, was pass the 1993 federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). That offers 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave to care for newborns or seriously ill family members for employees who have worked a year or more for a firm with 50 or more employees, but no such job guarantees are required for employees of smaller firms. And even while such job protection is offered and covers 60 percent of the national workforce, it is estimated that many eligible employees don’t use the leave because they can’t afford to.
Let me repeat that: the median paid leave benefit for mothers having a baby in OECD countries is 42 weeks. In this country, a mother gets 12 weeks of unpaid leave in businesses with more than 50 employees.
The concerns surrounding paid leave programs are the usual:
• Cost increases would put too much of a burden on employers, if employers would be expected to pay some of the cost;
• There is potential for employees to abuse the program; and
• There is the possibility that employers would avoid hiring women in child-bearing years, if employers are contributing to the cost of the program.
Proponents counter that the long-term economic benefits outweigh any short-term costs or obstacles. They point out that families lose billions in lost wages by taking unpaid leave. Studies also suggest that paid leave provides for healthier babies who have better outcomes later in life, and it also allows for single parents to stay better connected to the workforce and leads to higher lifetime earnings.
According to NCSL, at least 19 states had proposed legislation to establish paid family leave programs in 2017, and there have been “less expansive efforts to bring paid leave to more workers as well.
Very briefly, in Vermont, H.107 would have provided family and medical leave benefit of up to 12 weeks of parental/bonding leave. The benefit amount in that particular bill was “90 percent of an employee’s average weekly wage up to Vermont livable wage ($533.60 per week, or $27,747 per year) and 50 percent of an employee’s average weekly wage in excess of Vermont livable wage.” A tax on income was proposed to pay for the benefit, and employers had the option of contributing to the plan or not. A Senate plan required family leave to be mandated by most employers in Vermont.
Neither the House nor Senate could reach a compromise, so the plans stalled and will be taken up in the next session starting Jan. 1, 2020. The governor proposed a voluntary plan, partnering with New Hampshire in which the states would cover state employees with a paid family leave plan, and allow private businesses to piggyback on the same program (therefore reducing costs because of scale), but at their own expense.
In a nutshell, almost everyone favors some family leave proposal, but get stuck on how much the state and/or business community can afford. Join the Addison Independent this Wednesday at 9:30 at the Vermont Coffee CAFÉ on Exchange Street in Middlebury for a discussion on this topic, and the $15 minimum wage. We’ll meet for an hour to go over the outlines of both issues, and look for solutions at an upcoming meeting. For more reading on this issue, see an expansive report at https://bit.ly/2Ki51n6, and H.107 at https://bit.ly/2WLtwL6.
Angelo Lynn

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