Small businesses need paid leave

The Open Door Studio in downtown Raleigh.
The Open Door Studio in downtown Raleigh. Juli Leonard

I own a small yoga studio in downtown Raleigh that’s been in business now for a full decade. My business employs between eight and 15 part-time teachers at any given time, most of whom are women in their 20s and 30s.

Whenever one of our small team gives birth to a baby or has a family medical crisis, we pull together to make sure classes are covered and our studio keeps running. I support my staff to take the leave they need to recover or care for their families. However, that leave is unpaid. Though I would like to be able to provide an employee with paid time off, the studio budget simply can’t absorb the cost.

I’m far from alone. A scientific poll by the Small Business Majority and the Center for American Progress in March of this year showed that a whopping 70 percent of small-business owners support the idea of a policy that would provide employees with access to paid time off for personal or family medical situations. Paid family medical leave also has the support of a large and bipartisan majority of the general American public.

Still, most small businesses offer no paid leave program to their employees. If you ask most of us why that is the case, the answer comes down to simple math. We can’t afford to pay someone while they’re out of work on medical leave while also paying someone to cover for them at work.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, only 12 percent of private sector employees in the country have access to paid family medical leave through their jobs. Some people are able to take unpaid leave through the Family Medical Leave Act, but small businesses with fewer than 50 employees are exempt from the FMLA, leaving many working people with no access to paid or unpaid leave.

For people who work for a living, though, not having paid family medical leave can mean choosing between paying your rent or recovering from a C-section, or taking care of your mom after her heart surgery, or being at the hospital for your kid’s chemotherapy treatment. For business owners, not offering paid leave means higher turnover, less focused and loyal staff and greater uncertainty about covering day-to-day operations.

I recently learned about a proposal in Congress called the Family and Medical Leave Insurance (FAMILY) Act, which would establish an insurance program to cover working people who need to take family medical leave. The program would function in a similar way to workers’ compensation. Employers and employees would pay into the system at a fraction of a cent, and the fund would cover up to two-thirds of an employee’s regular pay for up to 12 weeks while the employee is on leave.

While I do feel some anxiety about mandating paid family medical leave, a proposal like the FAMILY Act would make it far more feasible for me and many other small-business owners to provide this critical benefit to our employees. A growing body of workplace research (and common sense) tells us that offering employees the ability to take time off with pay to care for their families increases employee longevity and performance, which means paid leave benefits me as an employer, too.

The whole point of my business is supporting people in our community to become stronger, healthier and more resilient. I do my best to ensure my business stays true to those values, but when it comes to offering paid leave, I can’t do it alone. Small-business owners need a paid leave system that shares the risk, minimizes the burden on individual employers and perhaps most importantly, gives working people the support they need to be there when their families need them most.

Monica Shannon owns Open Door Yoga Studio, which opened in 2007 in downtown Raleigh.

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