Opinion

Workers, children deserve family leave insurance


by Rick Bender
President of the Washington State
Labor Council, AFL-CIO

What does the United States have in common with Australia, Lesotho, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland? We are the only five out of 168 industrialized nations, according to a Harvard University study, that do not ensure that workers get some paid parental leave when a new child is born or adopted into their family.
In Australia at least, new mothers get up to 12 months of unpaid job-protected leave. So if they can afford it, Australians can take a whole year off work to bond with their new child and be assured of getting their jobs back when they return.
Here in America, we only recently won such protection. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 grants workers up to 12 weeks not months of unpaid leave. And thats only if your company has more than 50 workers, which excludes about half of us.
But again, almost every other nation on this planet makes sure that its citizens can afford to take time away from work during the stressful, critical transition to parenthood. We dont.
What do we know that they dont?
We force new parents to spend their savings and use all of their vacation and sick leave if they are fortunate enough to earn it just to spend some time bonding with their babies. By and large, upper- and middle-class Americans get to do it, and the working poor dont.
What does that accomplish? Does that make Americans more independent? More productive workers? A better place to do business? What?
At least were not Socialists.
I was stunned to hear this sentiment sum up the arguments made on the floor of Washingtons State Senate by those who oppose establishing a Family and Medical Leave Insurance program in our state.
Why would we ever want to emulate the Socialist countries when we are the largest industrialized country in the world and the most successful? asked Republican Sen. Val Stevens of Arlington.
Other Senators also broke out the S word. Some dusted off the E word (entitlement) and most trotted out the B word (bureaucracy). But thankfully, they were in the minority. So SB 5659, the proposed Family and Medical Leave Insurance Act, passed the Senate 32-17 and is now before the House.
SB 5659 would grant all Washington workers up to five weeks of paid leave at a stipend of $250 a week (pro-rated for part-timers) with the birth or adoption of a child, or when workers must leave work to help a family member cope with a serious illness. The insurance program would be financed by a 2-cents-an-hour payroll deduction on workers, or about $20 to $40 a year.
Fully 73 percent of Washington voters support creating a worker-funded family leave insurance program, according to a new poll by Lake Research Partners. In Eastern Washington, the support rises to a remarkable 82 percent. Other polls have also measured strong support for worker-funded family leave insurance.
Even so, SB 5659 was amended before its Senate passage to address concerns raised by business lobbying groups. Although all workers are entitled to receive the benefit, only businesses with more than 25 employees are required to provide job protection. Plus, a Business and Occupation tax credit was added for small businesses that hire temporary replacement workers for those who take leave.
And yet, certain employer lobbying groups still hope to kill the bill by misrepresenting it with false doomsday scenarios. One recent email to farmers from the Washington Farm Bureau suggested that new employees could work one day, demand paid family leave, and then either force employers to rehire them or collect unemployment benefits.
In addition to being untrue, such arguments are downright offensive.
Is our public policy to promote healthy families and early childhood well-being really going to be guided by some irrational premise based on Washington workers being lazy shiftless bums wholl con their way out of working half the year if given the chance? Is that the big secret that we in the United States know, but nobody else in the world has figured out?
For all the rhetoric we hear about family values and No Child Left Behind, its stunning that when presented an opportunity to demonstrate that commitment, neo-conservatives still blind to the changing political landscape in this country still think all that matters is somebodys short-sighted bottom line.

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