Mass. needs paid family and medical leave

In News, Paid Leave by News Desk

Commonwealth Magazine:

WHEN LIZ FREDETTE GAVE BIRTH to her son, she had to go back to work four weeks later because her company offered just a week of paid maternity leave, and she couldn’t afford to go without a paycheck any longer. She had to work long hours in order to support her newborn son, when she should have had the time to recover and be there with him.

After having multiple surgeries, Miriam Vascuella had to rush back to work before she was physically ready because she couldn’t afford to stay home and rest. She’s also been threatened with the loss of her job when her elderly family members needed her help in caring for them.

With the support of her company, Joyce Greer took three months of paid leave while suffering from severe depression in 2011. Without that safety net, she would have had to resign from her position, potentially ending her career. Instead, she’s still working today.

Stories like these, which can be found in every community in Massachusetts, make clear the need for paid family and medical leave. Serious personal or family medical emergencies arise for all of us, at some point, and all parents need time off to nurture and bond with their newborn or newly adopted children. Paid family and medical leave would allow these workers to take time to take care of their health or the health of a loved one without fear of losing their job or the risk of financial ruin.

Nearly 40 percent of Massachusetts workers risk losing their jobs if they take time off work to take care of a family medical emergency or after the birth of a child. These workers are not covered under federal unpaid leave law (the Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA) because they work for companies with fewer than 50 employees. And in an emergency, few workers can afford to take the unpaid time off from work allowed under federal law. They face financial hardship if they have to leave the job that puts food on the table to care for a family member they love.

A bill being heard by the Legislature this week, The Family and Medical Leave and Temporary Disability Insurance Program Act, would make employees eligible for up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave to recover from a serious illness or injury, to care for a seriously ill or injured family member, or to care for a new child. It prohibits employer retaliation against workers who take time off under these conditions.

Under the legislation, employees would be eligible for temporary disability benefits equal to a percentage of their average weekly wages, capped at $1,000 per week. These benefits would last up to 12 weeks to care for a family member or new child, and up to 26 weeks for an employee’s own serious illness or injury.

Benefits would be funded through employer contributions to the new Family and Employment Security Trust Fund. The bill exempts employers who already provide equivalent paid leave benefits, creates a one-week waiting period before employees can receive benefits if they are out of work due to their own illness or injury, and uses existing agencies for administration and enforcement, keeping costs down.

Paid family and medical leave would help our state’s families, businesses, and economy. Workers could stay home with a newborn child or a seriously ill parent, or take time to recover after an unexpected illness. Businesses would benefit from healthier and more productive employees, while the reduction in worker turnover would generate savings for employers. Paid family and medical leave also keeps money in the pockets of families who then spend it in the local economy.

California and New Jersey have had paid family and medical leave for years, and both workers and businesses report positive effects. Six years after California’s law was implemented, 89 to 99 percent of employers reported that paid family and medical leave had either a “positive effect” or “no noticeable effect” on productivity, profitability/performance, turnover, and employee morale.

The stories of Liz, Miriam, Joyce, and thousands of others show why we need paid family and medical leave – because everyone should be able to care for a newborn child or a sick family member without risking job loss or financial ruin.

Deb Fastino is co-chair of Raise Up Massachusetts.