Family medical leave law deserves wide support

This article originally appeared in The Olympian

This article originally appeared in The Olympian

Editorial from The Olympian:

In response to the looting and chaos that erupted in Baghdad following the American invasion of Iraq, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said, “Democracy is messy.” To some, it was a callous remark, but not entirely an inaccurate description of how a representative democracy actually governs.

State lawmakers frequently propose legislation to raid the general fund for pet projects that serve the special interests of a constituency of voters. These measures often arise and get passed into law without regard for how they fit with the sum total of all other legislation.

Aside from the governor’s annual budget and State of the State address, there is no big picture vision for what the people of Washington want our state to become. Instead, it’s cobbled together by individual, and often competing, pieces of legislation.

Such is the case with the Family and Medical Leave Insurance (FMLI) law. The Legislature passed a law in 2007 granting workers of businesses with fewer than 50 employees up to five weeks of time off without worry of losing their jobs. It includes a small stipend. Women having babies, for example, could receive up to $250 per week – based on a formula using their rate of pay – and spend time with their newborn child.

Lawmakers have postponed implementation of the law because they considered it an undue burden on families and small businesses during the recession. A bill making its way through the Legislature would repeal the law.

At the same time, several other bills in the House and Senate acknowledge the benefits of early childhood education, and would require the Department of Early Learning to expand its education and assistance programs. Other bills call for legislative task forces on early learning, and to fund expansion of early learning programs.

Education experts agree that when parents are able to spend quality time with their children from birth to age 5, the children do better in school, are more likely to graduate and are less likely to become a burden on taxpayers through the criminal justice system.

Allowing women who work in small businesses to spend five weeks with a newborn – another bill would expand the leave to 12 weeks – is consistent with state support for our early learning goals.

The FMLI law also supports the state’s drive for economic recovery. Less than 10 percent of businesses in Washington offer paid family leave plans. Middle- and low-income workers must rely on 12 weeks of unpaid leave to recover from serious injuries or for care of a newborn.

Taking unpaid leave can lead to financial disaster for average income households with mortgages and other bills to pay. The small amount of assistance provided by FMLI can make the difference whether a parent can afford to stay home with a newborn, or is forced to leave them in child care.

The family leave law is largely self-funding, with no charge to the state’s general fund. It is financed by a payroll tax of 0.2 percent of wages, shared equally by employees and employers. For the average worker, that means about a dollar a week.

Rep. Chris Reykdal is co-sponsoring the House bill to expand and implement the 2007 FMLI law. The bill deserves support, because it strengthens families and the state’s middle-income households.

NYT: Working While Sick

From the New York Times:

Sick Young Woman Lying in BedMore than 40 million American workers get no paid sick leave. They have to work when ill or take unpaid sick days, which can lead to financial hardship, or, worse, dismissal. The best way to address this workplace and public health problem is with a national law requiring businesses to provide paid sick leave — a normal benefit for workers in at least 145 countries.

But since there is little hope for such progress anytime soon in Washington, New York City Council members are taking up the cause. At least 36 of 50 council members support a proposed city law that would require sick leave for more than 1.2 million workers. Christine Quinn, the City Council speaker, has refused to bring a bill to the floor, however.

She argues that the timing is bad given the weak economy and that the benefit could increase compensation costs for businesses by an average of 1.5 percent, which in her view would hurt smaller companies to the point of driving them out of business or out of the city. Some business leaders say that companies will cut jobs if even a few days of sick leave are required.

Little evidence to support such fears has been seen in San Francisco, the District of Columbia and the state of Connecticut, which require many businesses to provide the benefit. There are also economic benefits — lower turnover, higher productivity and morale, and reduced job loss for workers. But Ms. Quinn, who says she supports paid sick days in principle, does not want to consider a citywide sick-leave law until the economy is stronger.

The current council proposal would require firms with 5 to 19 employees to provide workers five paid sick days a year, which could also be used to care for sick family members. Businesses with 20 or more employees would have to provide nine days a year of any type of paid leave. The proposal would not cover independent contractors, interns or most union workers. There would be a one-year grace period for new businesses with fewer than 20 employees.

Ms. Quinn and Councilwoman Gale Brewer, who is the lead sponsor of the bill, should be able to find a workable compromise. The requirement could be phased in slowly, especially for new companies and the smallest businesses. If done wisely, New York City’s version could be the sensible model for federal legislation.

Ms. Brewer, Ms. Quinn and other New York City political leaders should also put more pressure on Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature to pass a state measure on paid sick leave.

Connecticut’s law, enacted last year, requires sick leave for most businesses with 50 or more employees. That still leaves far too many employees without paid sick days, but it is a start. Gov. Dannel Malloy said recently that the law had not led to more small business failures and that the state had gained jobs since it took effect.

This benefit is also good for public health. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that workers who could take sick leave instead of working while unwell were less likely to be hurt on the job.

American workers should have paid sick leave, and New York City could set a standard for the rest of the nation. Workers in the city deserve a sensible and humane sick-leave benefit now.