Paid family medical leave strengthens families, businesses, and the economy

By Roy Lincoln Karp
Special to the Reporter

Two days after my daughter Lucy was born, I stepped into the hallway of the post-partem ward at Beth Israel to talk to my supervisor on the phone. Born more than three months before her due date, Lucy was on life support in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) and my wife was recovering from severe preeclampsia and a life-threatening condition called HELPP.

My supervisor told me that UTEC, my non-profit employer in Lowell, was giving me eight weeks of paid leave because of my difficult circumstances . I felt a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. Over the next few months, that time off was precious to me. It allowed me to visit Lucy in the NICU, attend daily rounds with her medical team, and help Courtney with breast pumping every three hours day and night.

I am grateful for the support I received from UTEC during that challenging time. Unfortunately, most workers don’t receive such generous support from their employers. Many fall through a gaping hole in our social safety net: the lack of paid family and medical leave.

The United States remains one of the only countries in the world that does not require employers to compensate workers when they miss work to give birth, bond with a newborn or adopted child, recover from illness, or care for a family member with a serious medical condition.

This could soon change in the Commonwealth thanks to legislation proposed by state Sen. Karen Spilka and state Rep. Ken Gordon, and a grassroots campaign by Raise Up Massachusetts to get a similar measure on the ballot this November.

Under these bills, an employee facing a serious illness or injury could receive partial wage replacement for up to 26 weeks. An employee who needs to care for a seriously ill or injured family member or to bond with a new child could get up to either 12 or 16 weeks of family leave.

To pay for the program, employers would contribute premiums to a state-administered trust fund or a private insurance plan. They could also require their employees to contribute up to 50 percent of the cost.

Paid leave is popular among Massachusetts voters. According to a WBUR poll conducted last November, 82 percent support it and only 12 percent oppose it. Most workers seem to be willing to take a modest pay cut in order to achieve a better work-life balance when starting a family or facing a medical crisis.

By contrast, many employers prefer the status quo. Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM), which lobbies on behalf of its employer members, opposes the legislation. They argue that many of their members already offer paid leave and would prefer to let market forces rule.

Indeed, some larger companies have begun to offer paid leave benefits to better attract talent. These programs can also improve the bottom line by increasing staff retention, morale, and productivity. However, many small and mid-size firms that want to offer such benefits cannot afford to because of the high cost of long-term disability insurance.

As a result, the vast majority of workers are left out. Only 13 percent of private sector workers in the U.S. have access to paid family leave through their employers, and only 40 percent receive paid leave for their own illness or injury.

The situation is worse for lower-wage workers, only 6 percent of whom have access to paid family leave. Women also bear a disproportional burden under the current system because they are still more likely to be primary caregivers.

Studies of paid-leave programs in other states – such as California, Rhode Island, and New Jersey – have shown that fears initially expressed by the business community proved to be unwarranted. In a study of California’s program, almost all employers surveyed reported the law had “no noticeable effect” or a “positive effect” on productivity, profitability, staff turnover, and morale.

AIM also has concerns about the overall cost of providing paid leave. But there are also huge costs in the current system. These human and financial costs – in the form of lost wages, lost jobs, and lack of appropriate rest and medical care – fall on workers. Spreading these costs among all employers and employees will strengthen working families as well as the economy.