Expanding Family Leave

When Kathleen Casavant was growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, her mother stayed home to raise her and her three brothers. There was never any worry about getting time off from work. No matter what came up – an illness, a doctor’s appointment, another baby–her mother was free to take care of it. Most families operated the same way.

Today nearly 78 percent of married women in Massachusetts are employed outside the home, says Casavant, the secretary-treasurer of the state AFL-CIO. When it comes time to care for a newborn, nurse a sick child, or, increasingly, tend to an elderly relative, they have to make special arrangements for time off–usually unpaid. And for many families, that means financial trouble.

That’s why Casavant and a chorus of women’s groups have spent months talking up a Beacon Hill proposal to use the state’s unemployment system to pay workers who need a temporary leave of absence. The work force has been changing for years, they say, and now work force policy must start recognizing the differences.

“This is a whole major culture change from when I was growing up and my mother stayed home all day,” says Casavant, who has a teen-aged son and is beginning to worry about her mother’s health. “We didn’t need paid family leave in many cases….[But today] you hear more and more that people are trying to balance their lives through many pieces.”

The unemployment benefits proposal was just one of several paid leave programs the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Commerce and Labor was considering earlier this spring. Sen. Stephen Lynch (D-South Boston), the committee’s co-chair and sponsor of the unemployment benefits bill, said his bill had the best chance. Drafted by a coalition led by the Women’s Statewide Legislative Network, it was created with input from hundreds of working people across the state.

The program would provide up to 12 weeks of unemployment benefits for workers taking a leave for any of the following reasons: childbirth, adoption, or placement of a foster child; to recover from a serious, non-work-related illness or injury; or to care for a seriously ill child, spouse, or parent. Workers would receive half their average weekly wage up to 57.5 percent of the state average. Another $25 would be added each week for each dependent, up to $100.

Massachusetts would be the first state to implement paid family and medical leave. While several other states, including Rhode Island, offer temporary disability insurance programs, they cover only workers who themselves are ill, not those who need time off to care for others.

The prospect of making Massachusetts a national leader on this issue is one of the reasons the bill has run into opposition from business groups. Although employers would not have to pay anything more than their usual contribution to the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, business leaders fear a mandatory paid leave plan would harm the state’s competitiveness.

“All the states watch what other states do,” says Richard Lord, executive vice president for legislative policy for Associated Industries of Massachusetts, which represents 5,000 of the state’s employers, including the largest. “For the reputation of the state as a place to do business…I think there could be a significant negative impact.”

AIM also objects to using any of the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund’s $1.8 billion for this purpose. The state has twice recently reduced employer contribution requirements and employers are looking forward to another cut proposed by Gov. Paul Cellucci.

“We’ve been able to build up a sizable cushion now, which you should do when times are good. But I don’t think we should start diverting it for things it wasn’t intended to pay for,” Lord says. Six years ago, in the middle of the recession, he notes, the state had to borrow money from the federal government to pay unemployment benefits because the fund was empty.

It should remain up to each individual employer whether to offer paid leave, based on each company’s particular circumstances, Lord says.

Supporters, who were working on cost estimates in early April, counter the criticism by pointing to the potential for savings down the road. Linda Johnson, executive director of the Women’s Statewide Legislative Network, says allowing workers to take paid leave would mean less spent on on a slew of other social service programs, ranging from welfare to nursing homes to long-term health care.

Well aware of the strong opposition, Sen. Lynch said in early April that he was considering a compromise – possibly narrowing the proposal to apply only to women taking maternity leave. “There’s a great public purpose that’s served there, and we can really try to soften the blow for many families trying to bring a child into the world,” he said, adding with a laugh that his support for the idea has nothing to do with the fact that his wife is expecting their first child in September.

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Even if no paid leave legislation is passed this year, supporters are confident that they will succeed in one important quest – keeping the issue on the legislative agenda.

Similar programs proposed in the early 1990s went nowhere, says Rep. Patricia Jehlen (D-Somerville), who filed a previous proposal, as well as a current bill that would pay for leaves through a new fund of employer contributions. But Jehlen adds: “More and more people are realizing [paid family leave] is something that makes a lot of sense.”