THE MOST VULNERABLE days during our brief time on this planet are when we are born and when we are aged and ailing. Few could argue that the most dignified ways to spend those times are with family. But for many working people in the state, there is no choice between caring for an ill family member and going to work. Even if that family member is a newborn.
Damali Simmonds took the maternity leave allotted to her under federal law when she gave birth to her daughter, Malia, last April. Simmonds, a 38-year-old single mother, returned to work in the mailroom of the Boston Water and Sewer Commission but couldn’t take additional time off to take Malia to the doctor when the child had an ear infection. Malia’s had two more ear infections and a bout of conjunctivitis, all before her first birthday. “You can’t send a sick kid to day care, and I can’t stay home from work,” says Simmonds, who had to stop breast-feeding because her schedule wouldn’t allow it. “The first year of a child’s life is one of the most formative and critical and not having any time off from work makes it impossible to be there. What am I supposed to do, not reproduce?”
Just over a year ago, thanks to a broad coalition of voters, Massachusetts became an instant national leader in workforce policy. Over objections from the retail lobby and the governor-elect, voters overwhelmingly passed the nation’s most generous paid sick leave program, allowing workers to earn up to five days of leave each year — in most cases, with pay — to care for themselves, their spouses, or their children.
It was a humane move, a boon for public health, and a signal to states and cities nationwide that paid leave policies — for which the United States notoriously lags behind other developed nations — are politically viable, even in this polarized time. When the Legislature considered a bill on paid family leave in the fall, no one came to the State House to testify against it.
Not only can and should the state do more — demographics suggest that it cannot afford not to. And that isn’t just because no one wants to publicly stand against new mothers like Simmonds and their infant children.
Baby boomers are aging and will need to be looked after by someone. Their children are having fewer children themselves and working longer and longer hours. Both of these generational shifts demand better unconventional care policies. It goes without saying that allowing working parents to look after their families without putting the jobs they need in jeopardy is both cheaper and more advantageous to our communities. Left unsaid is the obvious moral dignity that comes with enabling this type of care: At some point, we may all need someone to change a bedpan, as we once needed someone to change our diapers.
Businesses undoubtedly will oppose such measures with an eye to the short-term expense, but in the end, society will pay to care for our oldest and youngest members one way or another. We can do it later, at greater cost through taxes and government programs, or we can put people first and allow them the flexibility to help themselves.
Right now, about 40 percent of the workforce is not eligible for family and medical leave through the federal Family and Medical Leave Act because workers are employed by companies with fewer than 50 employees. Advocates note that represents 1.2 million workers who risk losing their jobs if they take time off to handle a family medical emergency — from ear infections to Alzheimer’s. Even for those who do qualify, unpaid leave can prove financially impossible. Providing a broader swath of workers access to paid family leave is both compassionate and common sense.
Washington, D.C., could be the model.
This spring, the District’s City Council is likely to vote on an ordinance that would require city businesses to offer 16 weeks of paid family leave, which workers could use to recover from a serious illness, care for a new child or an ailing relative, or transition after a military deployment. The leave would replace full wages up to $1,000 per week and partially replace higher wages. It would be financed by a modest tax on employers and administered similarly to an unemployment insurance program.
And it would fix some glaring gaps in the federal Family Medical Leave Act of 1993. That groundbreaking law allows workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for themselves or family members. But it doesn’t cover many workers in small businesses, nor does it account for the financial burdens of unpaid leave. One recent US Department of Labor survey shows that nearly one in four women returns to work within two weeks of giving birth, because she can’t afford to take the time. Research shows that caring for children in their earliest years leads to a host of positive outcomes later in life, that care shouldn’t come at the cost of penury for working parents.
The D.C. bill has garnered national attention. But Massachusetts has a similar chance to set an example. Members of both the House and Senate have put forward bills that would allow most workers to take advantage of 12 weeks of paid leave, administered through a trust fund to which employers would contribute. A reconciled version of the legislation is expected from the Joint Committee on Labor Workforce and Development any day now.
That a bill like this could be viable is a dramatic change. Even a few years ago, paid family leave was seen as a nonstarter. Paid leave laws, less expansive than D.C.’s proposal, are already on the books in California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. And Ellen Bravo, director of the Family Values @ Work Coalition, sees momentum on her side.
The change has largely come from relentless advocacy. President Obama has helped, as well. Recent Labor Department budgets have contained grant money for cities and states to study and ease the implementation of paid family leave. Some of that money went to researchers at Northeastern University, who presented some economic findings at the State House hearing last fall: The proposed Massachusetts program would cost $495 million, or an average annual cost of $160 per worker per year, or $3 per worker per week.
This is a modest cost — probably less than the cost of your daily latte, as one researcher put it — though it comes at a time of low tolerance for taxes of any kind. Still, the success of paid sick leave last year suggests a political opening. And while some business lobbies are opposed to such a measure, many other business leaders are supporting it. Executives at firms including Google, InkHouse Public Relations, and Spotify have testified in favor of it.
For most employers, the burden may not be as great as they imagine. Few people in a given year give birth, even fewer care for infirm relatives. In Rhode Island, for instance, less than 1 percent of the private sector workforce took advantage of the state’s Temporary Care Insurance leave in 2014.
Representative Ken Gordon told legislators at the October hearing that the trust fund model could, in fact, help Massachusetts firms recruit top talent over states like California. “Our companies, to provide the same benefit, have to provide it on their own,” Gordon said, “and that is a competitive disadvantage.” In California, after six years, nine out of 10 employers reported either a “positive effect” or “no noticeable effect” on productivity, profitability, turnover, and employee morale, according to a 2010 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
Paid leave also has the support of doctors and hospital groups, which understand the public health implications, along with the expected coalition of organized labor and advocacy groups concerned about the welfare of the most vulnerable citizens.
Paid family leave would, indeed, provide crucial help to low-income workers. But Bravo notes that, if broadly applied, family leave helps everyone. In the years since she fought for the Family Medical Leave Act, Bravo has seen how many people take advantage of the law in times of need: “Lobbyists I sat beside who opposed it will now say, ‘Oh, the FMLA, I used it when my mother had a heart attack, it was so great.’ ”
Once they’re implemented, and once the sky doesn’t fall, laws that protect the public health and workers’ well-being have a way of becoming a kind of baseline, an expected and understood clause in the social contract. So it was with worker safety legislation in the 20th century. So it was with the FMLA two decades ago. So it could be with paid family leave — and Massachusetts could provide some of the necessary proof.