Shellyann Smith took 12 weeks off for the births of each of her two children — and got paid for it.
Smith, a 32-year-old customer service and sales specialist at the Bank of America call center in Hunt Valley, says her employer's policy of granting 12 weeks of paid maternity leave meant she "didn't have to think about work or worry about my job being there when I got back."
A growing movement of workers — and their supporters in Annapolis and Washington — wants to make the benefit universal.
Democrats in Congress have proposed a fund that would pay a worker up to two-thirds of his or her monthly wages for 12 weeks to care for a new child or an elderly family member. California, New Jersey and Rhode Island have expanded their state disability insurance programs to cover family leave. The Obama administration has offered grants for other states to study how they might also offer the benefit.
In Maryland, Del. Heather Mizeur proposed a paid family leave program modeled on California's during her unsuccessful campaign this year for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. In California, a portion of the state payroll tax paid by employees goes into a fund. Eligible workers on family leave can draw on that fund to cover a portion of their salary.
Del. Ariana Kelly, a Montgomery County Democrat, says she wants to bring the idea to the House floor.
"The birth of a child is one of the leading causes for a poverty spell," Kelly says. "For all types of families it's incredibly important."
Jerid Kurtz, a spokesman for Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, the Democratic nominee for governor, directed a reporter to campaign materials in which Brown speaks of extending family leave opportunities to more Marylanders and working with "stakeholders" to "identify a paid family leave benefit in the future."
Adam Dubitsky, a spokesman for Republican nominee Larry Hogan, said Hogan supports existing family leave law, but would work to put Marylanders back to work, rein in "reckless" spending, and roll back tax hikes approved by Gov. Martin O'Malley "before considering new funds or further complicating the tax code."
Business owners have resisted government regulations around employee leave. Both the Maryland Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business say they would fight any legislation that required employers to keep paying workers who are out on leave.
But representatives say they might entertain a plan funded by employees themselves.
Deriece Pate Bennett, a lobbyist for the Chamber of Commerce, said she hadn't heard of the California model. She said chamber members "would definitely be open to the conversation to see what that would entail."
Jessica Cooper, director of the state chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said the small companies she represents "are always eager to talk about ideas."
Wanda Smith, president and CEO of the staffing agency Symphony Placements in Cockeysville, is skeptical. She said paid family leave sounds good in theory, but she sees a slippery slope.
"Being a business in this state, I can assure you the state of Maryland will find a way to assess every employer a higher payroll tax or another tax geared toward that," she said. "They'd have to figure out a way to get the money."
Under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, eligible workers at companies of more than 50 employees may take up to 12 weeks of unpaid family leave per year. They may use paid vacation and sick time, if they have any, to continue earning money. They also keep their health insurance coverage, and their job is held for their return.
The Maryland Parental Leave Act, signed by O'Malley in May, requires companies with 15 to 50 employees to offer six weeks of unpaid family leave.
But some companies have policies that go further.
Bank of America, where Smith works, offers employees 12 weeks of paid leave, followed by up to 14 weeks of unpaid leave, a spokeswoman said, for a total of 26 weeks.
"It's part of our effort to be a great place to work and help employees meet the diverse needs of their families," spokeswoman Ferris Morrison said.
This year, the professional services firm KPMG expanded the number of weeks of paid leave it offers from 12 to 18, according to DeJuana Small, a human resources manager for the company.
"We feel like our employees are worth the investment," she said.
When M&T Bank marketing manager Elizabeth Rhodes gave birth to her son William last year, her employer covered the difference between her short-term disability insurance payments and her full salary for four weeks.
She said the extra money eased the financial burden of her leave and allowed her to focus on her family.
"It was nice and a great benefit and shows, I think, how M&T values employees and wants to give back to employees," she said.
Jennifer Swanberg, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, said paid family leave programs increase a worker's job satisfaction.
"It helps with employee engagement," she said. "It puts [employees] at ease with economic security."
Vicki Shabo, vice president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, said paid family leave is "good for families, good for businesses and good for the economy."
"It keeps employees happy and engaged, and reduces the cost of turnover," she said. "We're losing ground in terms of women participating in the workforce, but if we put policies in place to help women stay, we would add a significant amount to our [gross domestic product] as a country."
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, both Democrats, have proposed legislation to create a federal paid family leave program that they say would work something like Social Security.
Employers and employees would pay into a fund. An employee taking leave to care for a new child or an elderly family member could draw on the fund to cover 66 percent of lost wages, capped at a monthly limit, for up to 12 weeks.
"It is shocking that the United States is the only industrialized nation in the world that doesn't offer paid maternity leave," Gillibrand said. "Choosing between your loved ones and your career and your future is a choice no family should have to make any longer."
Business groups say paying workers who are out on leave can be expensive, particularly for small businesses.
"If you have a handful of employees, and one's out, you have a few options," said Jack Mozloom, spokesman for the state chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses. "You can allow the work to go unfinished ... you can shift someone else to do their work ... or you can hire a temp or pay overtime, in which case you're paying double for the same labor."
New parents Matt Stubbs and Hannah Gardi, whose employers don't provide paid family leave, used vacation and sick time to cobble together 11 weeks home with their daughter Adalyn.
Stubbs said the time helped strengthen their bond with the child.
"Hopefully [it] helps her develop into a fantastic individual," he said.
But medical assistant Louise Blazucki went back to work just six weeks after giving birth last year to her daughter Margaret. As a part-time employee, she doesn't qualify for the 12 weeks guaranteed by the Family and Medical Leave Act.
She said she would have taken more time off if she could.
Her daughter was "just barely human" at 6 weeks old, she said. "You're leaving this tiny little bundle and hoping you don't feel too guilty about it and they don't miss you too much."