Chapel Hill: Opinion

August 8, 2014

Allan Freyer: A good step forward on paid family leave

When families welcome the joyous event of a new baby or face the crisis of family health problems, they need to be able to take time off from work without the threat of financial disaster.

When families welcome the joyous event of a new baby or face the crisis of family health problems, they need to be able to take time off from work without the threat of financial disaster.

Unfortunately, the Family and Medical Leave Act – the only federal law designed to help working people succeed both as providers and caregivers – leaves out 40 percent of the workforce and guarantees only unpaid leave, which millions cannot afford. The next step forward for North Carolina – and America – is paid family leave.

The good news for America’s working families is that the issue of paid family leave is increasingly on lawmakers’ radar screen, thanks in large part to Sen. Kay Hagan, who has worked hard to bring more attention to the issue on Capitol Hill. In a positive step forward, the U.S. Senate subcommittee on Children and Families held a hearing this recently at Hagan’s request on the benefits of paid family and medical leave for families and businesses alike.

North Carolinians dominated the hearing, making the business case – and the human case – for paid family leave. And business owners, advocates, and representatives of working families renewed their call for a family and medical leave insurance program to ensure every working American can recover from a serious illness or care for a sick loved one or new child without risking their job or the income they need.

This is a timely and pressing issue. Currently only 12 percent of the 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. That 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.

The message to Senate lawmakers was clear: it’s time to fix this glaring hole in the legal protections for working families.

“To pretend that people don’t get sick and that they don’t give birth just doesn’t make sense. This is a human issue. Families should have the opportunity to care for their loved ones without the risk of losing their jobs or falling into poverty,” said Jeannine Sato, a resident of Durham, during her testimony.

Recalling when her own Family and Medical leave was denied by a previous employer, she continued: “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.”

Paid family and medical leave also has clear benefits for business owners. Kevin Trapani, CEO of the Morrisville-based insurance consulting firm The Redwoods Group, 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,” Trapani said. “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.”

Supportive workplaces create supportive, productive workers. Fewer families must rely on public assistance during a baby’s first year if parents have access to paid leave. And low-wage workers are the ones who can least afford taking unpaid time off when a loved one falls gravely ill, so paid family leave provides them with the support they need to make ends meet during these critical times in life.

Given these benefits, it’s time for lawmakers in Raleigh and Washington, D.C. alike to promote a paid family medical leave policy that will benefit families 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.

After all, our elected officials should understand – they have to juggle caregiving responsibilities with work responsibilities just like the rest of us.

Allan Freyer is the director of the Workers’ Rights Project at the North Carolina Justice Center.

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