A Push for Paid Family Leave

Family Paid Leave Shellyann Smith took 12 weeks off for the births of each of her two children ? and got paid for it.

Smith, a 32-year-old customer service and sales specialist at a Bank of America call center in suburban Baltimore, says her employer?s policy of granting 12 weeks of paid maternity leave meant she ?didn?t have to think about work or worry about my job being there when I got back.?

A growing movement of workers ? and their supporters in Washington ? wants to make the benefit universal.

Democrats in Congress have proposed a fund that would pay a worker up to two-thirds of his or her monthly wages for 12 weeks to care for a new child or an elderly family member. California, New Jersey and Rhode Island have expanded their state disability insurance programs to cover family leave. The Obama administration has offered grants for other states to study how they might also offer the benefit.

In Maryland, Del. Heather Mizeur proposed a paid family leave program modeled on California?s during her unsuccessful campaign this year for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. In California, a portion of the state payroll tax paid by employees goes into a fund. Eligible workers on family leave can draw on that fund to cover a portion of their salary.

Del. Ariana Kelly says she wants to bring the idea to the House floor.

?The birth of a child is one of the leading causes for a poverty spell,? Kelly says. ?For all types of families it?s incredibly important.?

Jerid Kurtz, a spokesman for Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, the Democratic nominee for governor, directed a reporter to campaign materials in which Brown speaks of extending family leave opportunities to more Marylanders and working with ?stakeholders? to ?identify a paid family leave benefit in the future.?

Adam Dubitsky, a spokesman for Republican nominee Larry Hogan, said Hogan supports existing family leave law, but would work to put Marylanders back to work, rein in ?reckless? spending, and roll back tax hikes approved by Gov. Martin O?Malley ?before considering new funds or further complicating the tax code.?

Business owners have resisted government regulations around employee leave. Both the Maryland Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business say they would fight any legislation that required employers to keep paying workers who are out on leave.

But representatives say they might entertain a plan funded by employees themselves.

Deriece Pate Bennett, a lobbyist for the Chamber of Commerce, said she hadn?t heard of the California model. She said chamber members ?would definitely be open to the conversation to see what that would entail.?

Jessica Cooper, director of the state chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said the small companies she represents ?are always eager to talk about ideas.?

Wanda Smith, president and CEO of a staffing agency, is skeptical. She said paid family leave sounds good in theory, but she sees a slippery slope.

?Being a business in this state, I can assure you the state of Maryland will find a way to assess every employer a higher payroll tax or another tax geared toward that,? she said. ?They?d have to figure out a way to get the money.?

Under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, eligible workers at companies of more than 50 employees may take up to 12 weeks of unpaid family leave per year. They may use paid vacation and sick time, if they have any, to continue earning money. They also keep their health insurance coverage, and their job is held for their return.

The Maryland Parental Leave Act, signed by O?Malley in May, requires companies with 15 to 50 employees to offer six weeks of unpaid family leave.

But some companies have policies that go further.

Bank of America, where Smith works, offers employees 12 weeks of paid leave, followed by up to 14 weeks of unpaid leave, a spokeswoman said, for a total of 26 weeks.

?It?s part of our effort to be a great place to work and help employees meet the diverse needs of their families,? spokeswoman Ferris Morrison said.

This year, the professional services firm KPMG expanded the number of weeks of paid leave it offers from 12 to 18, according to DeJuana Small, a human resources manager for the company.

?We feel like our employees are worth the investment,? she said.

Source: MCT Information Services