Paid family medical leave getting a new look in Maryland’s legislative session

This article was republished with permission from WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

This content was republished with permission from WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

Monika Roberts, a retired public school administrative secretary, was constantly bloated and having trouble eating after two to three bites each meal. After several doctor visits and MRI scans, she found out that she needed hernia surgery.

This meant several weeks away from work and no driving. After surgery, Roberts stayed with her daughter, Patty, who is a parent educator and recess aide for Montgomery County Public Schools. Complications with Roberts’ surgery led to two and a half months recovery, during which Patty helped her eat enough, tracked her medicine, drove her to doctor appointments and walked with her when she did not feel like walking.

“She was my timeclock,” said Roberts, who is 63. But this was only possible because the school system gave both Patty and Roberts, who was an administrative secretary at Lucy V. Barnsley Elementary School in Montgomery County at the time, extended paid leave. “It was a way that I could heal with no regrets,” Roberts said.

Looking back on the surgery six years later, Roberts said she feels fortunate that she and her daughter were able to take several weeks of paid leave. She did not have that benefit when she worked for an insurance company, which gave her only 10 days of sick leave after a miscarriage although she needed at least four weeks to recover. The circumstance led her to quit that job, and it took her more than year to find another one.

“This is not something that we have to fight for,” Roberts said. “There needs to be a way to not put [the burden] on the person who is sick or in care of someone who is sick — that’s not right.”

The United States is the only high-income country without national paid leave, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Under a 1993 law, workers are eligible for 12 weeks of unpaid family and medical leave. But half of Marylanders do not qualify because the federal law requires employees to have worked for at least a year and exempts organizations with fewer than 50 employees. Only 23% of Americans have access to paid family leave, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Without paid leave, some workers must give up their jobs or use all their personal sick leave — typically 10 days — to care for a family member or welcome a new child. And the coronavirus pandemic has particularly challenged families’ care taking arrangements. This disproportionately affects women, who shoulder most of the caregiving responsibilities and are advised to take at least six to eight weeks to recover from childbirth.

Still, nearly a quarter of women in the nation return to work after 10 days of maternity leave, according to Time to Care Maryland, a coalition fighting for statewide paid family leave in Maryland.

“No one should have to choose between their family and the job that they need,” said Myles Hicks, campaign manager for Time to Care Maryland. “The consequence is that people are not getting a break to care for themselves.”

Last year, President Biden proposed up to 12 weeks of paid leave for all Americans, but the proposal dwindled to four weeks of paid leave and was eventually squashed after pushback from business leaders and Republicans in Congress.

Nine states and the District of Columbia have enacted paid family leave policies, and Maryland could be next if the legislature passes the Time to Care Act this year, sponsored by Sen. Antonio L. Hayes (D-Baltimore City) and Del. Kris Valderrama (D-Prince George’s).

“If people across the nation aren’t going to be able to get paid family and medical leave, at least we can work towards getting Marylanders this benefit,” Hicks said.

The measure would allow all Marylanders, both part-time and full-time employees who have worked 680 hours, to take 12 weeks of paid leave following childbirth or to take care of themselves or a family member experiencing serious health issues. Depending on their salary, workers would receive a partial wage replacement of between $50 and $1,000 a week.

This would be the fourth iteration of a paid family leave measure in the General Assembly. Last year’s measure did not get out of committee, but advocates contend it is a popular policy among voters of both parties. In a 2020 poll by the Time to Care Maryland coalition, 88% of voters who responded favored creating a paid family leave program, including 92% of Democrats and 81% of Republicans.

House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) told Maryland Matters on Monday that she expects the legislation to get careful consideration this year.

How much would the leave pay?

Under the proposed bill, employers and employees would equally contribute a small amount from each paycheck to a publicly administered insurance fund every week. Workers who want paid family and medical leave can submit a claim to draw funds from that public insurance pool, which would be managed by the Secretary of Labor.

An average weekly contribution would be around $7.04, split equally between the employee and employer, according to Clinton Macsherry, director of public policy for Maryland Family Network. The more an individual earns, the more they and their employer must contribute to the fund — up to around $9.47 each, Macsherry said.

If an individual’s weekly wage is around $700 or less, they would receive 90% of their weekly wage during their leave, Macsherry said. Anyone who earns above that would receive an additional 50% of their weekly wage above the initial $700.

“Low-income people need to have a higher proportion of that wage replacement for this to be viable for them,” Macsherry said. “If they could only get half of their wage, that’s really not enough for them to take the leave.”

Since this is only a partial wage replacement, there will still be an incentive to return to work and earn a full wage. But this proposal at least gives families an option to take necessary time away from work, Macsherry said.

The funds could also be used towards an educational program that informs the public about the statewide paid family and medical leave program.

But some business groups have opposed the measure as too costly, especially for small businesses struggling to stay open during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some were also concerned about potential abuse of the program — for instance, if workers asked for paid leave when they did not really need it. The bill requires workers to submit a legitimate reason for taking a leave, such as a doctor’s note.

In written testimony last year, the Maryland Chamber of Commerce wrote they were “very concerned” that the legislation would result in additional costs to small businesses owners and nonprofits that cannot afford to lose an employee for several months, on top of other financial mandates such as sick leave and paying a $15 minimum wage, which Maryland is set to require beginning in 2025. In addition, the bill did not include enough safeguards to prevent potential abuse of the program, the chamber wrote.

Although this bill would impose an additional cost for Lavonne Taylor, the director of Forest Hill Nature Preschool in Harford County, she said she is willing to contribute to the paid leave fund if it meant higher staff retention as a result of a higher level of job security.

“This is a staffing issue more than it’s a cost issue,” Taylor said. “The cost for me to replace that staff member [who leaves because of a lack of benefit] is far higher than it is for me to keep that staff member,” she said.

Taylor currently offers her staff 40 hours of annual paid sick or personal leave, but cannot afford to offer more leave by herself. “Right now, my option is not splitting the leave 50/50; my options are to pay entirely myself or employees go unpaid.”

One of Taylor’s full-time teachers left last summer to take care of her father, and it took three months to find a replacement, Taylor said. “We had already invested in four years of training with her…it’s difficult to find someone who’s qualified and has experience in this climate right now, so that was a challenge,” she said. Taylor said her teacher would have had more options if a statewide paid family leave program had existed.

If her daughter did not have access to paid leave, Roberts said she would not have allowed her daughter to take care of her. “I’m not going to have her lose her job to take care of me. I would have had to do it on my own. Would it have been difficult? — yes,” Roberts said.

“I don’t think I could have done it because I wouldn’t have had the mental capability to do it.”

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