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The World is Still Waiting for Us to Catch Up on Paid Family & Medical Leave…

March 18, 2017


Did you know that the United States is, at last count, one of only two countries on Earth that does not offer paid family and medical leave for its citizens? Got that? On Earth. We spend a lot of energy, verbally and physically, trying to bend our minds around “competitiveness” and “affordability” and, when it comes to showing the most basic compassion toward our citizens, we have failed. But then, is it really a failure if we haven’t really tried?

Oh sure, since the early 1990’s, both Vermont and the United States have offered an unpaid family and medical leave for employees. The Vermont Parent and Family Leave Act covers all employers doing business in or operating within the state of Vermont, which for parental leave purposes employ 10 or more employees for an average of at least 30 hours per week during a year, and for family leave purposes employ 15 or more employees for an average of at least 30 hours per week during a year. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act applies to companies with more than 50 employees. The PFLA has been slightly more accommodating with the kind of leave one can take than the FMLA, but neither of them have evolved to include income replacement for those families who need to take leave to take care of their parents, themselves, or to bond with their children.

It is this “softer” reality that really makes people nervous. There are many positive societal benefits, from stress reduction to quality health care to child bonding to self care and so on, and many of them are quantifiable, but the opponents of this bill refuse to consider them.

The VT PFLA and the federal FMLA are existing insurance programs, but without any financial compensation. They allow employees to apply for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave a year for a number of family and medical reasons, and they protect the employee from losing their employment, unless their absence creates an undue hardship for their employer. But the leave remains unpaid.

Do you know the names of the countries that offer the most paid leave to their citizens? Estonia leads the pack with 87 weeks, EIGHTY-SEVEN weeks, and Bulgaria, Hungary, Japan and one of my home countries, Lithuania, all offer over 60 weeks of paid leave. Germany? Over 40. Canada? Over 20.

And here in the United States, only 14% of workers have been offered some kind of paid family leave by their employers, and the unpaid leave that has been granted is only available to 40% of all workers, given the limitations on the number of employees needed to qualify. Vermont’s policy, as stated above, is slightly more generous, but it still exempts employees who work for companies with less than 10 employees. This is the result of a “free market” that wants to offer benefits that “distinguishes” companies by how “generous” they think they are being to their employees.

Five states have enacted paid family and medical leave, and one of them, Washington, still has yet to determine how it should be funded, ten years after enacting it (and this in a state that has legalized marijuana!). The other states have wrapped their paid family and medical leave insurance benefits around exisiting temporary disability programs. The only temporary disability insurance programs in Vermont are offered through third party insurance companies, and none of them can offer the same generosity offered by H.196.

H.196 adds a fiscal element to the leave, at a reasonable cost to employees.

With the statistical backup provided by a report done for the VT Dept of Labor and the Vermont Commission on Women, we have passed H.196, a proposal for an insurance program that will be employee funded and will provide employees with up to 12 weeks of income replacement up to $1,042 a week (2x Vermont’s Livable Wage for 40 hours a week, or $52,000).

The addition of income replacement enhances our existing PFLA law, and is built right into it.

The benefits for employees are numerous, from having a financially stress-free length of time with their newborns, which will also save them thousands of dollars in quality child care, if it is available, to being able to take time off for their own medical treatments, to being able to take care of their family members at the most vulnerable times of their lives. The report written for DOL and the VCW is available on our website.

We chose to mandate an employee contribution only due to the fiscal realities of asking the state, as an employer, to pay for their potential share in a year when finances are tighter than ever. Many small businesses wanted to be able to help their employees with this contribution, and may do so, voluntarily. H.196 does not extend the existing leave for employees, and extends medical leave reasons to include care of grandchildren, siblings and foster children.

There is much more to say about this bill, and its benefits, and I am available to discuss this in more detail. The bill will need to be reviewed by the Ways and Means committee prior to debate on the floor of the House.

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