Bill to boost family leave pay makes its way in Congress

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WASHINGTON -- Workers needing time off to care for themselves or sick family members have had job security protected for the past 20 years because of the Family Medical Leave Act, but many are unable to rely on it because they can't afford the loss of pay.

That leaves many juggling full-time jobs while providing direct care, shuttling family members to doctor appointments and coping with extra financial strain of paying medical bills and buying supplies for newborns.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., are trying to change that with legislation that would allow qualified workers to receive two-thirds of their pay while on leave for up to 60 work days.

The Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act would be funded through a wage tax of .04 percent, shared equally by the employer and employee. That amounts to $1.75 a week for people earning $44,300 a year, the average U.S. salary, according to Social Security Administration.

The legislation also would expand eligibility to all workers, full- and part-time, regardless of the size of their employer's company. Currently, FMLA applies only to workers at companies with 50 or more workers.

The legislation is backed by organizations including Moms Rising and the National Partnership for Women & Families.

But business associations are pushing back, saying the proposed change would hurt their members and the larger economy. They say many businesses already provide great flexibility to employees with medical and family needs, and that increased federal regulation would rob both sides of the ability to negotiate benefit packages that meet company and worker needs.

That's not enough for Ms. Gillibrand.

"When a young parent needs time to care for a newborn child, it should never come down to an outdated policy that lets her boss decide how long it will take -- and decide the fate of her career and her future along with it," she said. "When any one of us -- man or woman -- needs time to care for a dying parent, we should not have to sacrifice our job and risk our future for our family."

The legislation would create a national insurance fund administered by the Social Security Administration. It would be self-funded and would not add to the federal budget. The proposal is based on state programs already operating in New Jersey and California.

Supporters say business owners should back the bill because it would give them peace of mind that their employees will be taken care of through hard times.

In New Jersey and California, which have their own paid-leave insurance programs, workers are more likely to return to their old jobs once crises have subsided, she said. That means businesses retain experienced workers, and that helps their customers and their bottom line.

David Taylor, president of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers' Association, dismisses that argument.

Extended absences are still costly to companies, and they would become more frequent if workers could collect two-thirds of their pay to stay home, he said.

"It means you've got to find somebody else to do the work, train that person and then when the employee returns to the workforce you've got to figure out what to do with the person you brought on," Mr. Taylor said. "This isn't to express a lack of sympathy for people who would find themselves in a tough situation; it's just that if we want to have a healthy economy, [the] idea of producing yet another factor that would suppress it" is wrong-headed.

Similar bills have failed before, but leaders of the National Partnership for Women & Families say chances of passage are better now.

"We're in a very different place. We're in a cultural moment where the democratic forces, the political forces and the economic forces are all pointed to address the very real need of keeping people in the workforce and addressing the changing family needs of child care and elder care," said Vicki Shabo, director of work and family programs.

The Senate version has one co-sponsor and the House version has 39, all Democrats.

Ms. DeLauro and Ms. Gillibrand say their legislation would ensure workers no longer have to choose between a paycheck and taking care of their health, helping a sick family member or spending time with a newborn or newly adopted child. The legislation also would provide coverage to families facing exigencies because of military deployment.

"This is something that families have been clamoring for," Ms. DeLauro said. "It ought to be the option of everyone in this nation not to have the fear of the loss of job and security because [they] become ill or they have other medical concerns in their lives."

Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello:, 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.

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