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Paid family leave: Maryland must act if Congress won’t | COMMENTARY

Sarah Clemente snuggles with daughter Penelope Clemente, 6, at their home in Charleston, West Virginia on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021. Clemente supported a paid family medical leave proposal that was removed from President Joe Biden's social spending plan because of opposition from West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin. House Democrats have since revived the idea but it still faces an uncertain future in Congress. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves).
Sarah Clemente snuggles with daughter Penelope Clemente, 6, at their home in Charleston, West Virginia on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021. Clemente supported a paid family medical leave proposal that was removed from President Joe Biden's social spending plan because of opposition from West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin. House Democrats have since revived the idea but it still faces an uncertain future in Congress. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves). (Jay Reeves/AP)

During the ongoing travails on Capitol Hill over what to do about President Joe Biden’s economic agenda, few issues have gotten bounced around like paid family leave. One day it’s in, then it’s out, next there’s a political backlash, and then, on Wednesday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi indicates that it is back in the House version of Build Back Better despite the likelihood that Sen. Joe Manchin will oppose it. Whatever legitimate debate there may be over the size and scope and financing mechanisms of the overall legislation, paid family leave deserves better than to be tossed around like a toy. It is necessary. It is sensible. It is popular. And it is absolutely the right thing to do, before, during or after a pandemic that has proved so costly to Americans’ health and well-being.

That’s why the leadership of the Maryland General Assembly should plant a flag right now, declaring that whether or not Democrats in Congress get their act together, members intend to adopt a state-level plan. We must ensure that working parents with a new arrival or people facing a medical crisis or other emergency can get 12 weeks off and be paid a substantial share of their customary wages. Lawmakers introduced such a bill in the last legislative session, but it never made it out of committee. Sponsors, including Baltimore state Sen. Antonio Hayes, have vowed to push for it again in the 2022 legislative session. At least 10 states have taken up or are in the process of enacting similar legislation, from California to Massachusetts. So has the District of Columbia. And that’s not to mention that it’s a benefit available in the rest of the industrialized world. Polls show about three-quarters of Americans support the idea.

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The U.S. already mandates unpaid family leave. It has since the Clinton administration. A lot of employers routinely provide 12 weeks or more of paid family leave to their workers, including corporations with a big Maryland footprints, such as Bank of America, Legg Mason and Discovery Communications. Maryland even provides that benefit for state employees. The reasoning is not hard to fathom. Keeping families intact, making sure valued employees (particularly women) aren’t forced to leave the workplace and — especially in the COVID-19 era — providing the means to deal with a crisis makes for a stronger company, a better community and a more robust economy.

What small- and medium- sized employers often lack, however, are the resources to provide this benefit. That’s why Maryland ought to adopt what is essentially an insurance program to help meet the obligation. With contributions from both employers and workers (as well as the self-employed), the proposed state-managed Family and Medical Leave Insurance program would provide benefits to qualified claimants. It would also allow companies to seek a private form of insurance if they chose as long as the benefit to employees remained the same. The goal would be to keep this an affordable benefit that is not subject to abuse. Nor should workers face some penalty for applying or receiving such a benefit.

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Granted, there can be complications. The law will have to define exactly what sort of circumstance qualifies for a benefit. No doubt some workers will not be happy to see a new deduction from their paycheck (although the average withholding is expected to be less than $4 weekly). And the benefit would have to dovetail with existing laws, like Maryland’s requirement that employers extend health benefits to workers who take unpaid leave. But, again, this is not a new concept either within the United States or around the world. This is not rocket science.

Would a national program be better? Absolutely. And we would urge Congress to support such a move. But we have seen the Lucy Van Pelts of the U.S. Senate abruptly pull away the football from the progressive Charlie Browns too often in recent weeks to have much confidence of that. It’s time for Annapolis to step up and prepare to provide this overdue social safety net for working families one way or the other.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

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