Obama Budget Pushes Paid Leave Programs

Selena Allen with her son, Connor

Selena Allen watches her son, Connor, as he prepares to go down a slide in 2007. Connor was born prematurely in April 2003, and Allen had to return to work just a few days after his birth. John Froschauer/AP hide caption

itoggle caption John Froschauer/AP

For millions of Americans, a major illness or family crisis means time off work with no pay. In recent years, several states have passed their own paid leave programs. Half a dozen more are trying but are largely stalled by the bad economy.

Now, the Obama administration's proposed budget aims to encourage states to push ahead.

Paid leave would help people like Selena Allen of Tacoma, Wash. When she found out she was pregnant with her second child, Allen started saving all her vacation and sick days. She hoarded away enough to take one month of maternity leave. Then her son was born a month and a half early.

"He was sent to the NICU [neonatal intensive care unit]," Allen said on a recent lobbying trip to Capitol Hill, "and I had to decide if I needed to take my precious maternity leave while he was there in the hospital, or wait until I could take him home."

Allen, who worked at a nonprofit at the time, decided she simply couldn't afford to take any more time off — time that would have been unpaid. She postponed her maternity leave and returned to work a painful four days after giving birth.

Julie Markiewicz of Portland, Ore., shared her story as well. When a motorcycle accident landed her in intensive care for a month, she said neither her husband nor sons could afford time off work to be at her side.

"I felt like I was going to die alone," Markiewicz said, "because my family could not be there when I truly needed them."

Economy Stalls Effort

California enacted a paid family leave law in 2002, and New Jersey followed suit in 2008. And in 2007, Washington state made headlines when it passed a paid parental leave law. The law would provide new parents up to $250 a week for up to five weeks. Advocates wanted it to include other kinds of family leave, such as major illness, and still hope to broaden it eventually.

Family Leave Bills

Paid family leave legislation has been recently introduced in Arizona, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York and Oregon.

The proposal in Massachusetts is the most generous, with a benefit of up to 12 weeks off at 80 percent of pay, capped at $750 a week. Other plans propose up to four to six weeks of family leave, with benefits of around $250 to $300 a week, an amount that would be adjusted for inflation.

But the bigger dilemma was that lawmakers couldn't agree on how to fund the program. Unlike California and New Jersey, Washington does not have an existing disability insurance program, so it had to create a funding mechanism from scratch.

The state set up a task force to do that. Then, says task force member Marilyn Watkins, of the Economic Opportunity Institute, the recession hit.

"A new program, with a new source of funding, in the face of cutting so many other programs, was just not a feasible situation," Watkins says.

Washington state's paid leave program has been put on hold until 2012, but Watkins hopes the federal government can rescue it sooner.

Proposed Federal Subsidy

The Obama administration's budget includes $50 million to help states with start-up costs for family leave programs — not for costs associated with the leave days. It would pay for things like computers and administration, which Washington state estimates would cost $10 million the first year.

"I would guess that four states in addition to Washington could well be in a position during the first half of 2011 to start enacting programs," Watkins says. "If we had five states applying for $50 million, that would actually cover it quite nicely."

But business groups say the ongoing economic crisis is no time to impose new mandates. Marc Freedman, of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, says even if a program is funded through a payroll tax — as existing leave programs are — there's an additional cost to the employer.

"Sometimes it means an overtime charge," he says. "Sometimes it means bringing in temporary employees, depending on what's being done."

Despite this, Freedman also says a lot of employers with no formal leave policy actually do allow workers time off when a crisis hits.

The Obama administration's start-up subsidy for family leave programs must still pass Congress. If it does, cash-strapped states will still have to find a way to pay for the leave days themselves.

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