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Maryland needs paid family leave | COMMENTARY

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave when employees need to take time off due to serious illness or disability, to have or adopt a child, or to care for a family member. But it does not guarantee that employees who use the act will get paid. States like California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New York, Washington, and the District of Columbia have paid family leave programs. File. (Pixabay)
The federal Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave when employees need to take time off due to serious illness or disability, to have or adopt a child, or to care for a family member. But it does not guarantee that employees who use the act will get paid. States like California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New York, Washington, and the District of Columbia have paid family leave programs. File. (Pixabay) (Pixabay)

Remember the days when they thought of an unexpected illness in the family was a scary yet seemingly remote possibility? If there’s one thing the COVID-19 pandemic has done, it’s to demonstrate that such emergencies — from an incapacitated parent to a seriously ill spouse or child — are far more than theoretical. Further, it’s demonstrated that a lot of families, particularly those of limited means, reside dangerously near a financial precipice. Leaving a job behind temporarily with unpaid leave, a benefit all Americans enjoy under a 1993 federal law, is one thing. Keeping a single parent and the rest of her family above water during an extended emergency is quite another. Even with relief checks, extended unemployment benefits and the like, the hardship has proven all too real.

That’s why this is the year the Maryland General Assembly should approve the Time to Care Act of 2021, legislation requiring employers to provide up to 12 weeks of paid family emergency leave to their workers. Make no mistake, this won’t be a cost foisted entirely on businesses. Under the proposal, Senate Bill 211/House Bill 375, it would operate much like unemployment insurance with premiums kicked in by both employer and employee based on wages. The resulting pool of money would be administered statewide by the Maryland Department of Labor. The potential weekly benefit for those who qualify would range from as little as $50 to a maximum of $1,000 per week. And employees must have worked for the company for at least 680 hours in the previous year to qualify for those benefits.

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The plan has its opponents, primarily business groups that fear any additional cost or even administrative burden as the pandemic rages on and their own economic struggles continue. That’s understandable but shortsighted. In reality, what lawmakers are considering should prove an enormous benefit to businesses in the same way that unemployment insurance helps soften the ripple effects of economic downturns. The more money in the pockets of families in crisis, the more they will spend and the less they will rely on taxpayer-funded and charitable safety net programs, and ultimately that’s better for the business community. Presumably a lot of companies would have offered this benefit before now — if they’d been able to afford it on their own.

In reality, the United States is the only industrialized nation in the world without paid family leave. And, in recent years, states have stepped up to embrace this mandate. At latest count, nine states plus the District of Columbia have adopted some form of paid family leave. Even Maryland’s largest single employer, the federal government, has gotten into the act. President Donald Trump signed legislation mandating 12 weeks of paid leave to new parents who work for the government in 2019. It seems irrational and unfeeling to make childbirth or adoption the only qualifying circumstance given how other types of family-related emergencies can be just as demanding if not more so. Ask anyone who lost a loved one to COVID-19.

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Granted, this comes with a cost for workers, too, since beginning in 2022 they’ll be paying an average $3.62 weekly into the fund. But then that’s just the nature of insurance programs. Only with broad participation can enough money be collected to finance future benefits to those who qualify for them. Employees should consider themselves fortunate if they never confront a serious family crisis and never collect a dime. It’s quite similar to Social Security with both employee and employer contributions. You may resent the several dollars that is deducted from your paycheck each week but you should be reassured the help will be there should emergencies arise.

One more thing: A recent poll commissioned by nonprofit, nonpartisan Maryland Rise found about three-quarters of Maryland voters would support paid family leave. And jurisdictions that have adopted the measure appear satisfied with its impact. In the District of Columbia, where paid family leave went into effect last summer, an overwhelming majority of surveyed employers say it’s either had a negligible or positive impact on their business. It’s time Maryland provided similar benefits to families facing not only COVID-19 today but many other potential health emergencies tomorrow.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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