Paid family leave is good for everybody

House and Senate proposals for family-leave insurance have made headlines around the state. Lines are being drawn between business interests and family responsibilities - but it doesn't have to be that way. We know from the experience of other states and large employers that paid family leave works. We also know that many small employers support giving their employees family leave.

Let's be clear on what family-leave insurance is:

1) It is an insurance policy, paid into by the employer at 1 cent per hour and by the employee at 1 cent per hour, for those times when a birth, adoption or serious medical condition creates exceptional family responsibilities. In those instances, the employee, rather than having to quit, can take paid leave at the rate of $250 a week for up to five weeks.  Family leave is only for critical medical conditions or for bonding with a newborn or a newly adopted child. The cost to the employee for this insurance is $20 a year.

2) The employer benefits by not having to find and retrain another worker - a very costly endeavor ranging from as little as $2,000 per employee to as much as $30,000 per employee. Also, employers are protected from having to pay two wages simultaneously. While the employee is on family leave, the employer has the flexibility to use the salary savings to hire temps or pay other workers overtime. 

We hear a loud chorus from highly organized business lobbyists crying wolf, but the experiences of other states show that paid leave works for workers and for business.

For nearly 60 years, all employees in five states - California, New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Hawaii - plus Puerto Rico have been covered by Temporary Disability Insurance programs (TDI). These states include more than 20 percent of the American workforce. All workers in these states are covered, whether they are the only employee or work for a huge multinational corporation. For nearly 30 years, all women in these same states have been entitled to paid maternity leave - a right enjoyed by women in virtually every other developed country.

These states have prospered right along with the rest of the United States. In fact, California has the most generous of these programs in length of leave and amount of benefits, and now includes family-leave benefits as well. Far from hurting, California has grown to be the fifth-largest economy in the world.

Our families face real hardships when parents have to make the difficult choice between family income and caring for a sick child or a newborn, or taking care of dad who has a stroke or a spouse with cancer. What about the impact to our state when people are forced on welfare, or when taxpayers must shoulder long-term care costs because family members cannot be there to help an aged parent in a health emergency?

The choice is simple: we can force people to quit their jobs, or we can ante up $20 a year as an insurance policy for those rare times when we have to deal with a verifiable medical condition.

Paid family leave is popular, and studies show that businesses benefit. Economists from the University of California and the University of Chicago estimate that employers in California will save $89 million dollars in turnover costs due to family-leave insurance. Studies also show business profits go up when workers have paid time off to care for sick family members.

Washington needs family leave. That's why both Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate have signed on to family-leave insurance proposals in the Legislature. With paid family leave we can show clearly that we value family and we value work. We are helping employers keep trained employees, and we are helping our children, our families and our parents when they need it most. 

Mary Lou Dickerson (D) represents the 36th District (Seattle) in the Washington State Legislature.

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