I found out I was pregnant just as the pandemic was starting in 2020. As a sole proprietor, without any national paid leave program, that meant I had to plan for my business to take a hit for my maternity time, and then COVID happened. The confluence of a major economic downturn, with a new baby on the way and no safety net was incredibly stressful as a new mom, and a business owner. Thankfully, my husband works for a company that provides paid leave, but many small business owners aren’t as lucky to have a spouse with benefits. We need a national paid family and medical leave program to support self-employed job creators like me.
I own a photography studio in Morgantown. It had just undergone renovations and was newly completed when we had to shut down in March last year. As a pregnant woman, I was high risk, and so I shut down operations to keep myself and my family safe. My mother was also at high risk and had several medical emergencies during the pandemic. The time to be able to care for her, and protect myself, was only possible due to going down to one income and relying on my husband’s benefits. Paid leave was absolutely necessary when I needed time to care for myself, my new child, and my mother.
When I started my business, I would have loved to have a paid leave plan, but for a small start-up like mine, it simply wasn’t possible without support. But I know the benefits. Paid leave helps retain staff, which is cost effective in the long term, and it helps level the playing field between businesses like mine and bigger national competitors. And I learned that in states that have paid leave plans, it has not been burdensome to businesses. And in an industry like photography, where many photographers are independent contractors, we can’t leave out sole proprietors in any plan.
In West Virginia, over 113,000 small businesses like myself employ over 49% of West Virginia’s workforce — higher than the national average. That means employees and business owners across our state are more likely not to have access to a private paid leave program through an employer. The private insurance market has priced us out. To level the playing field between big corporations and small businesses on retention and recruitment, and to allow our employees and ourselves the freedom to take the time to care when a medical surgery, new child, or elder parent needs it, we need to pass a federal program.
And now is the time. President Biden recently released the American Families Plan, a part of the investment in our care infrastructure we so desperately need. In addition to supporting American workers, the plan would be instrumental in ensuring businesses can recover — and help their employees do the same. During COVID, small businesses like mine were supported to offer paid leave for employees needing time off to recover, care for a loved one, or get vaccinated. The American Families Plan would take those benefits a step further and permanently help businesses do the right thing for their workers.
The hardship on employees, and on small business, is why I support a national comprehensive paid family and medical leave program like in the American Families Plan, like the majority of small business owners.
OpEd originally Published in the Herald Dispatch.