I’m hopeful this year might be the year we as a country decide to join the rest of the world in offering universal paid family and medical leave. It’s been a tough year, especially for small business owners like me. But it’s also been a year of learning on the fly, resilience and reflection.
The pandemic we are slowly emerging from taught us a few things about our economy and our public health. It taught us that some of the most important workers, the ones we can’t live without, don’t often receive the pay and the benefits commensurate with their importance. It also taught us that at some point all of us will need to miss some work—whether to get healthy or to care for a loved one—and that it’s better to have a plan in place for these absences than to make one up as we go along.
A universal paid family and medical leave plan draws on lessons we’ve learned over the last fifteen months to put our economy and our well being on solid footing. Yet there are still politicians in Washington who want to keep a sensible plan from seeing the light of day. Cynically, they often point to small business owners like myself as those who’d somehow be hurt by having a paid leave plan at our disposal. These politicians predict the sky will fall and the economy will implode if we let sick folks recover and parents welcome a new child before coming back to work. But the facts just don’t bear it out.
In New Jersey, where I live, we have had a paid family and medical leave program since 2009. Here are some things that have not happened: Massive layoffs, a stampede of small businesses relocating to nearby states without paid leave, a sudden wave of small businesses declaring bankruptcy, a measurable decline in economic activity because of paid leave.
Here’s what did happen: New Jersey families got paid time off to tend to a family crisis or the arrival of a new family member. And here is what I got as a small business with fifteen employees: a benefit program that increased the pool of prospective employees who might choose to work for my small company instead of a major corporation that can afford these types of benefits on their own.
As an employer, a universal paid leave program provides a direct benefit not only to my employees, but to me and my business as well. When an employee needs time off, I can keep a job slot open, pay a temporary replacement to fill in, or pay existing staff overtime to cover those hours. Without a paid leave program, my options and my employees’ options narrow, and those narrower options come at a higher cost.
Before we had paid leave in New Jersey, when an employee needed time away from work, none of the options were great. They could quit. I could lay them off. Or they could come to work distracted when really they needed to be at home. I could pay them out of pocket to stay home but my business, like so many others, doesn’t have a pile of money lying around to draw from at the drop of a hat. A universal paid family and medical leave program helps both families and small businesses by lifting a financial burden for both.
It has taken years to build our team and the cost of replacing one member far exceeds the cost of placing a help wanted ad. Low-cost retention of a valued employee is a benefit to employers like me, not a hardship.
Paid family and medical leave is practical, not ideological. It is cost-effective, not costly, and it just so happens that in the wake of this pandemic we have ample evidence that it’s the right thing to do. That’s why I’m encouraged by the investment in our care infrastructure outlined in the American Jobs and Families Plans.
In the 42 years we have been in business, we have been incredibly fortunate—as have our employees. On just three occasions, all when immediate family members became very ill, we directed our employees to New Jersey’s program. In all three cases, each for different reasons, the employee decided to keep working. Paid leave as it’s been implemented in New Jersey and other states is not a program that encourages idleness. It is not a program working folks want to bilk. It is a program that provides financial security for employees and employers alike. It is a safety net that works and allows all of us in New Jersey to sleep a little better.
We can and should make it a national program. The time is now to pass a national, universal paid family and medical leave policy—for our small businesses, our families and our communities.