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Lawmaker: It’s time Maryland offered a paid family leave program | COMMENTARY

Life brings challenges to all of us, and some can consume us. There will be times when we must care for the people we love the most, whether a spouse, a parent, a newborn or newly adopted child.

In far too many cases, Marylanders in these situations will be forced to make an impossible decision — taking unpaid time away from work with the financial hardship that entails or losing out on the opportunity to be at home during these critical moments.

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This dilemma stems from the fact that Maryland lacks paid family leave, a right that people in almost every country in the world take for granted, and something that 10 other states have adopted. If they can’t take vacation or paid personal leave from their jobs, Maryland workers must go without pay to stay home and care for loved ones.

It’s time to change this. Legislation I am sponsoring with Sen. Antonio Hayes (House Bill 375 and Senate Bill 211) would establish a new paid leave program that would provide partial wage replacement for workers who need time away from work to deal with a family issue for up to 12 weeks.

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I know the struggle firsthand. My mother battled a crippling disease before dying a few years ago. I spent as much time as I could with her, going without pay because I was determined to be with her when she needed me. A paid leave program would have been enormously helpful to me and my family.

My story is not unique. All of us know someone who has gone through something similar and would be helped by this bill. That someone could be a young mother who wants to bond with her newborn. Or a single mother whose young child has leukemia. I think of military families needing to spend time with service members wounded during a deployment. Or consider members of the sandwich generation, taking care of both children and a sick parent with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.

Regardless of our circumstance and station in life, the rain falls on each of our heads. If you need further evidence, search “Go Fund Me” sites and imagine yourself in any one of the desperate stories described there.

The legislation would establish a paid leave plan similar to our unemployment insurance system. It’s not the same as paid sick leave because it’s not a job benefit solely provided by an employer. It’s an insurance plan that provides a partial wage replacement for up to 12 weeks and requires workers to have their situation documented by a medical professional.

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The plan would not cost the state money. It would be funded by contributions shared by employers and workers, with contributions paid on a sliding scale based on income. A worker earning the average Maryland wage would pay $3.62 a week for a benefit that could be a lifesaver. A minimum wage employee would pay $1.57 per week.

Some people are lucky and will never use this insurance. That’s the nature of an insurance policy. But a paid leave system promises to bring enormous benefits — peace of mind and financial security — to many thousands of our friends and relatives as they work through moments of crisis.

The paid leave bill enjoys enormous public support. New polling by OpinionWorks found that an astonishing 88% of Maryland voters support the concept, including 61% who strongly support it. They know that no one should have to choose between the job they need and the family they love.

This bill isn’t a cure-all for helping us navigate our most challenging times. But it will allow people the chance to avoid financial disaster as they focus on what is really important in life — caring for our loved ones in times of need.

Kris Valderrama (kris.valderrama@house.state.md.us) is a member of the House of Delegates representing District 26 in Prince George’s County.

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