Paid-leave proposals gain steam

A Massachusetts bill would give employees 12 weeks off to care for family.

From same-sex marriage to universal healthcare coverage, Massachusetts has rarely shied away from blazing a trail of progressive reform. Now the state is considering another landmark proposal that would give workers here the nation's most generous paid leave policy.

The bill, which would pay workers their full salary (up to $750 a week) for up to 12 weeks to care for newborns or ill family members, comes just weeks after Republican Gov. Mitt Romney signed legislation that extends health insurance to nearly every state resident.

But the proposal is no liberal anomaly: Twenty-six other states considered some form of paid leave in their 2005 legislative sessions. California's 2004 program is currently the nation's most comprehensive.

Experts say the issue is gaining traction because it attempts to ease the difficulty many Americans face trying to balance work and family. A Harvard University report published in 2004 showed that of 168 countries studied, the United States is one of just five that don't offer some form of paid leave to women in connection with childbirth.

Observers say the bill in Massachusetts could unite conservatives and liberals around the issue of family values.

"Both liberals and conservatives recognize the reality of the situation," says Gary Chaison, a professor of labor relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. "But they have to make it seem like it is reflecting a new reality, without making it seem like they've become France."

Some 440,000 workers in the state currently take leave each year - about half for their own health reasons - at a cost of $370 million a year to employers, according to a study to be published later this month by Randy Albelda, a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts Boston. While the number of leaves would go up to 470,000 per year if the bill becomes law, her research shows, employers will save some $100 million - when factoring in less turnover and fewer paid sick days. "What is important about this is that it spreads the cost," Professor Albelda says. Most workers, she adds, will need leave at some point in their careers.

Take Paul Soderstrom. When the baker was hit by a car on his bike last December, he wondered how his injuries would affect his job at a bakery in Cambridge, Mass. Although he needed more than two months to recover, his company kept him on the payroll - with full health benefits. "I wasn't hurt on the job," he says. "[My boss] could have just let me go."

Parents Amy and Stephen Tournas-Hardt say they welcome a program that gives families more flexibility. Ms. Tournas-Hardt, who works at Harvard University, says she was in the middle of a career change when her daughter, now 10 months old, was born. That meant she could stay at home for six months. Today, her husband is the primary caregiver. But he is starting graduate school in the fall, so finding a job that offers paid leave and other family-friendly perks is paramount to her. "I don't know how people go back after six weeks," she says.

Under the federal Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993, American workers receive 12 weeks of unpaid leave at companies. But some 60 percent of employees who want to take family leave are not eligible for it, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington. That's in large part because it only applies to companies with 50 or more employees. Some businesses offer paid leave as a perk, but it's not mandatory.

"FMLA, for people who live paycheck to paycheck, is not a viable solution," says Deven McGraw, National Partnership's chief operating officer. The Massachusetts plan, she says, "is a workable solution for the tension between work and family."

Supporters say the plan would cover an additional 3 million workers, be funded by a small employee contribution (perhaps $1.50-$2.50 per week), and provide job protection for those who take leave. It goes hand-in-hand with the recent healthcare reform, they say, and would make the state a draw for workers. "It doesn't do you any good if you have the greatest healthcare in the world if you can't keep your job to take care of family that needs to access that healthcare," says Rich Marlin, legislative director of the AFL-CIO Massachusetts.

But critics say the proposal, which would require every worker to pay a premium, could increase the number of leaves and hurt overstretched businesses. "It's essentially a new tax on individuals," says Michael Widmer, the president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation.

Others say it adds a burden that discourages job growth. "We need to do things that make it easier to create jobs," says Jim Klocke, executive vice president of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.

As Massachusetts weighs the nation's boldest family leave program, the lesson from other states is mixed.

In California, nearly 9 in 10 residents support the leave program, according to a UCLA survey conducted last year. But in other states, leave proposals have proven more divisive. In Washington, for example, a state senate vote on a leave proposal split along party lines, says John de Graaf, national coordinator of the Take Back Your Time campaign, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed. "Despite the family values talk," he says, "profits trump family every time."

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