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Paid family leave: a much-needed safety net

A baby is born or adopted. An elderly parent requires care. A relative suffers grave illness or injury and needs help. Or maybe you are the one in dire straits. Such circumstances require time off from the job, but not everyone has sufficient paid leave, or can afford unpaid leave, to fully attend to them. The result? Often, it means families endure financial hardships, mental and physical distress and people suffer needlessly — none of which is especially helpful to their employers either.

Fortunately, there is a way to assist such individuals — as well as their employers — a solution that is not only affordable, logical and attracting bipartisan support but is years overdue. It is paid family and medical leave insurance, essentially a pool of money that can foot the bill when workers suddenly find themselves in circumstances that require up to 12 weeks away from their jobs. It works a bit like Social Security Disability: You and/or your employer pay a small amount per week in payroll taxes and, if the need arises and you qualify, you can tap into benefits.

A handful of states have already moved in this direction. California, New Jersey and Rhode Island have paid family and medical leave insurance programs up and running. New York began phasing in its version last year. The District of Columbia, Massachusetts and Washington state have enacted programs, but the fund reserves there are still building up and benefits haven’t kicked in yet. But it’s also getting some attention on the national level where its supporters include Ivanka Trump, who last year began working on a family leave proposal tied into Social Security (now called the Cradle Act and financed by postponing an individual’s retirement benefits). New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and fellow Democrats are pushing their own version, called the Family And Medical Insurance Leave Act or FAMILY Act that’s been endorsed by everyone running for president from their party, at least as of Wednesday.

Still, given the uncertainties of Washington these days, the prospects are far better in state capitals like Annapolis where the “Time to Care Act of 2019” (House Bill 341) is pending in the General Assembly. The Maryland measure would create a Family and Medical Leave Insurance program administered by the state’s Division of Unemployment Insurance. Similar to efforts in other states, the program would go into effect later this year, but benefits would not be available until July 1, 2021.

The cost is relatively modest. Based on experiences elsewhere, the weekly payroll deduction would be in the neighborhood of $3 to $5 a week, or roughly a weekly Starbucks latte for a lot more peace of mind than coffee can provide. The self-employed can also enroll, and individuals can take intermittent leave, if necessary, meaning they could take their time off on non-consecutive days to, for example, care for a bedridden relative who had nursing care on Mondays and Tuesdays but needed help Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Because of this flexibility, benefits could run anywhere from $50 to $1,000 a week.

This not a perfect program. Some companies may not be happy to find yet another complication on their payroll taxes, and this new benefit would have to be balanced with other leave-related mandates on the books. But it appears to be working well in the other states that have tried it. And it’s also important to point out that the U.S. is a real laggard when it comes to paid family leave. Only about 40 percent of U.S. workers currently have short-term disability coverage, and the U.S. remains the only industrialized nation in the world without paid family leave on a nationwide level (having mandated only unpaid family leave in 1993).

Finally, it’s important to note that allowing individuals an opportunity to care for a newborn or sick relative without losing their job or facing bankruptcy is a benefit that touches all of us. It’s good for employers. It’s good for families. It’s good for keeping health care affordable. It’s good for society at large. That’s why paid family leave is also quite popular with voters (a majority of whom would even support the program on a national level, according to the Pew Research Center). That’s why members of the General Assembly ought to approve this sensible, reasonable safety net program before they even think about leaving Annapolis next month.

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