Paid family leave is gaining in states

Legislatures from California to Vermont weigh mandating time off with pay to care for relatives.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A new vision of the American workplace is emerging in state legislatures from Hawaii to Vermont.

With a momentum that began to build two years ago, 23 states are considering dramatically expanding paid leave to ensure that most workers continue to get paychecks when they take time off for situations such as caring for a new child or an ill family member. One bill, in California, has gotten farther than any before.

To proponents, the trend is part of an acknowledgment of the country's changing workforce: With women a crucial part of the labor pool, fewer people are at home to attend to newborns and the elderly. To detractors, measures like the one now being considered in California threaten to place onerous new demands on the nation's employers – precisely when businesses are struggling to recover from recession.

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To all, however, the push for paid family leave represents a bid to recast the nation's business culture and refine the appropriate balance between work and family.

"It would have a tremendous impact, and judging by the number of bills introduced, there's clearly a movement to at least discuss expanding paid leave," says Elizabeth Owens of the Society for Human Resource Management in Arlington, Va.

Indeed, while California's radical step may be a long shot – it has passed the state Senate but still faces debate in the Assembly – many say the issue is clearly gaining traction in state politics.

Since 1993, federal law has required that workers be granted unpaid leave in cases such as illness or the arrival of a new child.

The new efforts by states would expand such provisions to require that leave be paid.

So far, the state-level discussions have snagged over how to pay for this generous new benefit.

Since the federal government in 2000 made unemployment insurance money available to pay for states' family leave plans, many have tried, falteringly, to devise schemes to use those funds. California's approach is different – and more direct.

The bill, which has passed the Senate and is now being considered by the Assembly, would levy a new payroll tax. Employers – regardless of the size of their company – would pay half, and employees would pay half, allowing all employees to receive 55 percent of their normal paycheck while on leave.

For Laura Foster, that would have been plenty.

When her father became ill several months ago, she scratched together vacation time so she could leave her childcare job and fly to his home near Las Vegas. When he later died, the responsibility of putting his affairs in order and planning the funeral also fell to her, leaving her with almost no paid leave remaining.

Then, somewhat unexpectedly, a request for adoption went through, requiring that she and her husband travel halfway across the country to pick up the infant. She returned to her Bay Area home with only one week of vacation left to spend with her son before returning to work.

"I worry that he's bonding more with the daycare provider, because he's only two months old, and that's an important time," says Ms. Foster, who asked that her real name not be used because of potential complications with the ongoing adoption.

She could take unpaid family leave, but she says she can't afford to. Her husband, a traveling salesman, has cut back his schedule to spend more time at home. "There was no way I could take more time off," she says.

The California bill, supporters say, intends to change that. Under federal rules, companies must work out employee leave questions on their own. California – like four other states – has supplemented those guidelines with a program that pays for a birth mother's maternity leave with disability insurance funds. The new law here would expand that idea, offering paid leave for both parents after births or adoptions. It would also allow employees, with a doctor's note, to tend to sick parents, children, spouses, or partners for up to 12 weeks.

"We don't have a society where mom stays at home and takes care of everything, so we need to deal with this as a workplace issue," says Netsy Firestein, director of the Labor Project for Working Families at the University of California in Berkeley.

A study by her organization estimates the cost of the program would come to roughly $50 per employee, per year – split between worker and employer. Others, however, suggest the figure could be more like $100.

Tom Lucas looks out over the palm trees and grasses of his southern California nursery, and wonders how he would make it. He has only 20 employees, and he needs each one. The idea behind the bill is good, he says, but businesses – small ones in particular – should be left to work these things out with employees without state intervention. "You're willing to work with employees because you don't want to lose them," says Mr. Lucas. "When the government says you have to do it, that's when you're set up for failure. We just can't afford this."

The criticisms are many: the bill would add another layer of bureaucracy and increase the cost of doing business; it would encourage more workers to take time off and to stay away longer; and it would only encumber the economic recovery.

Whether these arguments will prevail is uncertain. Gov. Gray Davis has not yet taken a position. But the continued strong interest among states nationwide suggests that the debate has just begun. "There is very broad interest in this," Ms. Owens says.

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