Senate panel looks into ways to expand paid family and medical leave

Choosing between your family’s health and a paycheck – it’s a decision families across the country are too often forced to face when they don’t have paid leave policies at their jobs.

A Senate panel discussed ways to expand access to paid leave for workers Tuesday.

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“Today we are the only developed country in the world that does not guarantee paid leave,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington). “We cannot build a better and stronger economy if workers are forced to choose between their and their family’s health or their paycheck.”

“It helps attract talent,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-North Carolina). “Improve retention. Increase employee health and wellness and it increases employee engagement.”

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While both parties are in agreement that more workers need access to paid leave, there is an ongoing debate about the best way to do it.

Some witnesses pushed for a federal policy while others pushed for states and local governments to have the flexibility to create their own.

Vicki Shabo, with Better Life Lab at New America, has served as an advisor on paid family leave policies to policymakers and businesses for nearly a decade, according to the organization, and she stressed the need for legislative action to ensure workers across the country have paid leave.

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Shabo said 80% of workers don’t have paid family leave and 70% of low-wage workers do not have a single paid sick day at their jobs.

“These are disproportionately workers in food service, retail, janitorial services,” said Shabo. “Just two to three days away from work jeopardizes their ability to buy groceries for a month, pay gas, pay utilities. Seven and a half days risks a month’s mortgage or rent.”

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But the National Federation of Independent Businesses cautioned that a mandated paid leave policy could mean fewer jobs for small businesses that can’t afford to cover the cost.

“The unanswered question with a leave mandate is who is going to pay?” said Elizabeth Milito, Senior Executive Counsel for the National Federation of Independent Businesses. “There is no such thing as a one size fits all policy that works for every business or every industry.”

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This year, Congressional Democrats introduced the “Healthy Families Act” which would allow workers at businesses with at least 15 employees to earn up to seven days of paid sick leave each year.