Kim Swanson gave birth to her first daughter in 2014. Thirteen days later, her husband lost his job. Swanson returned to work part time with plans to return full time in October. That didn’t work out. On Oct. 1, Swanson says, “My boss called me into her office and said, ‘I can’t give you your back your job.’ ”
Swanson’s job wasn’t protected under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to new parents, because her employer didn’t meet the requirements. It has been estimated that as many as 40 percent of the U.S. workforce is not eligible for FMLA because of its restrictions. Other workers who are eligible often don’t take the time off because they can’t afford to not be paid.
“This forces new mothers to choose between a paycheck and a newborn,” said Allan Freyer, director of the Workers’ Rights Project at the North Carolina Justice Center. “You have new moms who have very complicated pregnancies whose babies are in the ICU who have to go to work three days later. It’s a national embarrassment that we’re in that situation. We shouldn’t have to choose.”
The FAMILY Act, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, would change that. The bill guarantees workers a percentage of their pay for up to two months when they take time off for childbirth or to care for a seriously ill family member.
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Gillibrand has introduced the bill twice before, but supporters are hopeful that this time will be different because support for paid leave appears to be growing. In a Pew Research Center survey last year, 82 percent of Americans said mothers should get paid leave, and 69 percent said fathers should. The issue is one that President Donald Trump supported during his campaign, calling for six weeks of paid leave just for mothers, and that his daughter, Ivanka, has tried to bolster support for in Congress. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, for instance, has introduced a bill that would give companies tax breaks if they offer new parents paid leave.
While Gillibrand’s bill has only 28 co-sponsors, her spokeswoman said the senator remains confident that support for FAMILY will grow. “Given that the president himself has discussed the importance of passing paid family leave,” said Whitney Brennan, “the Senator is hopeful Republicans in Congress will follow suit and bring the FAMILY Act up for a vote in the coming months.”
The offices of North Carolina’s two U.S. senators, Republicans Thom Tillis and Richard Burr, did not respond to a request for comment on the legislation.
While several large companies in North Carolina, including Duke Energy, BASF, Blue Cross and Blue Shield and Citrix, have added paid parental leave in recent years – often as a recruiting tool – most companies don’t, and small-business owners oppose federal efforts to require it, said Gregg Thompson, the North Carolina director of the National Federation of Independent Business. The federation has 7,500 members, and the average member has six employees. The group surveys its members on a variety of issues and for years has asked members about paid family leave and time off.
“These small-business owners are truly concerned that if they are mandated to provide paid family or sick leave that it would be very detrimental to their business,” Thompson said. “They are going to work with that employee to keep them, to give them what they need, and to rearrange schedules to cover for them, and keep their business going, but if they are forced to do this by law or mandate, it’s not giving them the flexibility to keep small business running and operating.”
Monica Shannon, who owns a small yoga business in Raleigh, agreed.
“I usually just work their hours,” she said. Still, Shannon said Gillibrand’s bill was going in the right direction – as long it didn’t burden businesses to pay employees for the time off themselves.
“There’s not a lot of extra cash flow,” she said. “You can handle extra expenditures for a small time. ... I’m not gonna punish them if they’re taking care of their family, but I can’t afford it.”
Benefits for families, businesses
In North Carolina, Wake and Durham counties offer paid leave for public employees who have given birth, adopted or have a new foster child. Those policies do not affect private employers. Currently, California, Rhode Island, Washington, New Jersey, New York and the District of Columbia, all have passed paid leave policies for public and private employers. Of all nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and European Union, only the United States does not provide paid maternity leave.
Gillibrand’s FAMILY Act would cover anyone with a job, whether they’re part time or full time, working for a large corporation or small mom-and-pop. The bill’s main requirements are that the employee be covered by disability insurance and have earned income in the past year.
Jeff Hayes of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research said the legislation “is somewhere in the middle” when compared to breadth of coverage in existing state programs. FAMILY is “probably gonna be leaving out people who are self-employed, who don’t pay out Social Security tax.”
Gillibrand has suggested paying for it by increasing taxes on employers and employees by two cents per $10 earned, but that is not included in the bill itself.
Supporters of paid leave say there are enormous health benefits for families and benefits for businesses, too.
A Better Balance, an organization devoted to supporting pro-family policies, notes that children whose mothers do not return to work full time in the first 12 weeks are more likely to receive medical check-ups and critical vaccinations; mothers who take at least 12 weeks are more likely to breastfeed; and fathers who take longer leave experience greater engagement in their children’s lives.
When Tina Sherman, a mother of four in Apex, had twins in 2009, her husband had to go to work the next day – even though the children were in the neonatal intensive care unit. A few years later, when the Shermans had their fourth child, her husband’s employer offered four weeks of paid leave, and she saw the benefits.
“It was amazing,” Sherman said. “Here we are, parents of four – this wasn’t our first rodeo – and I was amazed at how having his support made such a difference. His bonding with our youngest was just able to occur so much sooner.”
California, which passed the first state-based paid leave in 2002, has also seen business benefits. According to one survey, 92.8 percent of employers reported that paid family leave had a positive or neutral effect on employee turnover, 88.5 percent on productivity, 91 percent on profitability or performance, and 98.6 percent on employee morale.
Jeannine Sato, a mom of two in Durham, said that in 2007 her employer had no paid leave policy, and was too small to qualify for FMLA. Though she managed to combine sick days and vacation time to take six weeks off – “which sounds like a lot but when you have a newborn it’s not” – she decided to leave her job. “I consciously made a decision to look for for an employer that offered paid leave,” she said.
Whether or not a business offered paid leave indicated to Sato the employer’s values. “It seems inhumane to penalize people wanting to care for their loves ones,” she said. “It’s a noble goal. I will only work for people who value that part of a worker.”
When she had her second child, Sato was working for Duke University, where she was able to take 12 weeks of paid leave. “As far as loyalty goes, I will be forever grateful to Duke,” she said.
Kyle Cavanaugh, vice president of administration at Duke, said the university’s benefits play some role in attracting new employees but “play a stronger role in retention.”
Some other large businesses that can afford to offer paid leave have followed Duke’s example. Citrix, an international software company with a large office in downtown Raleigh, began offering “18 weeks of 100 percent pay for new parents” on July 1, said Donna Goldstein, the company’s vice president of human resources. The policy includes both the birth and adoption of a child.
Goldstein said the policy “supports our diversity and inclusion initiative” but that Citrix was also motivated to simply “support our employees in their workplace balance as they’re going into one of the biggest events of their lives.” She expects the policy will help with retention and overall productivity, but also noted: “It’s just the right thing to do. It’s not just a benefit in our minds.”
While Sato, Swanson and Sherman all see the FAMILY act as a step in the right direction, they also have concerns. Unlike the FMLA, Gillibrand’s bill does not guarantee a person’s job will be waiting. So it’s good for employees who qualify for the protections under FMLA, but those who don’t qualify for FMLA could lose their jobs.
Swanson said that while she thinks the idea of paid leave is awesome, “If I ended up losing my job, I would’ve been so upset with myself. This adds an extra stress.”
Sato called it a great first step and added, “Right now there’s nothing. People are just patching things together. I’ll take what we can get at this point.”
FAMILY vs FMLA
There are some major differences between the Family and Medical Leave Act, which was passed in 1993, and FAMILY, which has been introduced in Congress this session.
FMLA: Guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave with job reinstatement privileges for the birth, adoption or foster care placement of a child, to care for the serious illness of yourself or an immediate family member and to transition yourself or a spouse who has been called to active duty.
To be eligible you must, at the time you want leave, have worked at the same employer for at least 12 months or 1,250 hours during the 12 months before the start of your leave. Additionally, you must either work for a public employer, or a private employer that has employed ast least 50 fifty employees, at worksites within 75 miles, in at least 20 of the workweeks in the year prior to the date you are seeking leave.
FAMILY: Requires workers be paid for two months following a formula based on income. If the bill goes into effect, eligible workers will receive between $580 and $4,000 a month, but this is subject to change after the first year. Workers must be insured for disability insurance and have earned income in the past year. The bill covers childbirth and the care of a seriously ill family member. It applies to both men and women, but it does not guarantee that a job be held.