Paid leave: ‘I benefit when my employees do not have to choose between their loved ones and a paycheck’
Ben Verhoeven is a farmer and owner of Peoria Gardens, Inc., a nursery and greenhouse located in the rural Oregon town of Albany that grows flowers for distribution to retail garden centers. He employees 26 people full-time, year-round, as well as an additional 24 seasonal workers.
All of Verhoeven’s employees have access to paid family and medical leave – and neither Verhoeven nor the employees have to pay much for the benefit – just 0.4 percent of payroll for Verhoeven and 0.6 percent for the employees.
Verhoeven normally wouldn’t be able to provide this benefit at such low cost, but Oregon is one of 14 states, plus Washington, D.C., that has implemented a paid leave program – the state picks up the rest of the cost.
“Many industry groups claim that policies like ours will hurt business,” Verhoeven says. “That’s just not true. Paid family leave costs less per year than truck repairs and has a much greater effect on the lives of the people I work with.”
Opponents of paid leave, Verhoeven adds, “will tell you that only workers benefit. Therefore, all of the financial costs should fall on workers’ shoulders. This is not true. As an independent business owner, I benefit when my employees do not have to choose between their loved ones and a paycheck. As a farmer I benefit when my workers have a stable home life, which begets a stable work life.”
Verhoeven offered his comments this week at a Senate Finance Committee hearing that focused on the potential impact and benefits of a mandatory, national paid leave policy in the U.S. On the federal level, the U.S. has no mandatory, funded paid leave program, one of the few countries with advanced economies in this category.
“Why are we having this hearing?” asked Sen. Ron Wyden, D-OR and Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. “Because low- and middle-income workers are falling through the cracks – people like construction workers, nurses, or cashiers who are trying to juggle work obligations with families who need them. The American people understand this and know what is needed to make sure everyone has a chance to get ahead.”
Wyden said polls consistently show that more than 70 percent want national paid leave. “They know that too often without it, workers are forced to make the impossible choice of a paycheck or caring for a loved one in need,” he said. “Paid leave is so crucial for American workers that a recent poll from the Bipartisan Policy Center showed that paid family and medical leave benefits are just as important as pay when considering starting or returning to work. Americans want to work. They want to pay their bills and provide for their families. But life can intervene and sometimes family has to come first.”
Witnesses at this week’s hearing all agreed on the benefits of paid leave – but disagreed sharply on who should pay for it and whether a federal mandatory policy is wise.
Jocelyn Frye, President of the National Partnership for Women & Families, said millions of families across the country would benefit from paid leave, which she said also would help the economy because it would ease many women into the workforce – women who cannot currently work in paid jobs because they are currently working, unpaid, to support family members.
“The pandemic’s sudden disruption of our economy was a stark, sobering demonstration that the lack of comprehensive care supports undermines the ability of workers, especially women workers, to find and keep jobs and economically contribute to their families,” Frye said. “Learning from the pandemic’s lessons requires building a modern, functioning economy that can tap the full potential of all workers, and to do so requires prioritizing access to comprehensive paid leave.”
Frye said the debate over paid leave does not exist in a vacuum – it is part of a larger discussion about how to overhaul the economy by also addressing things like child care and home care.
“It is an integral part of a broader, important discussion about how we build an economy for the future that works for everyone,” she said. “What the pandemic taught us is that there are essential gaps in our policy infrastructure that we must fill in order to ensure that all workers, especially women, can be full participants in the economy.”
She also said that the lack of a mandatory paid federal leave policy leaves people of color and people with disabilities particularly vulnerable.
“While paid leave is needed for all families across the country, regardless of race, gender, or ethnicity, we know that both the devaluation of care and the lack of guaranteed paid leave has disproportionate impacts on women of color, especially Black women and Latinas,” she said. “Inadequate paid leave policies cost Black women and their families nearly $4 billion a year in lost wages.”
Citing research by the Center for American Progress, she said “16 percent of workers who took FMLA [Family and Medical Leave Act] leave did so to address an ongoing health condition, many of which may be disabilities such as chronic migraines, diabetes or multiple sclerosis…Though disabled workers may be especially likely to need paid leave to take care of their own health, they report less access to paid leave than nondisabled workers.”
Other witnesses, representing groups that have opposed paid leave through the years, were not convinced.
Rachel Greszler, a Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said employers in states with government paid family leave programs have less flexibility to manage their businesses without harmful disruptions to other employees or to services offered.
“For example, while I know many people—myself included—who have utilized employer-provided paid family leave policies and have kept their foot in the door at work to help things move along in their absence, I also know new mothers who, when utilizing formal government paid family leave programs have had their access to e-mail and all computer systems shut off while they were on leave, out of their employer’s fear of a lawsuit if they did any work,” she said. “Such rigid prohibitions hurt companies and customers, as well as employees who can miss out on promotions or find it harder to come back to work after taking leave.”
And Elizabeth Milito, Executive Director of the Small Business Research Center at the National Federation of Independent Business, said paid family leave programs may actually harm employees by shifting money from wages and health care to pay for the employer’s share of the leave.
“Mandated leave is not a free benefit for employees; mandated leave comes with a cost that businesses will have to shoulder and will eventually be absorbed by the employer, employees, and customers,” she said. “In a small business with a finite number of resources, this translates into less money available for wage increases, health insurance and other benefits, and hiring additional employees.”
But Sen. Wyden said it is an outrage that only one in four workers in the U.S. has access to paid leave.
“Congress talks lots about America’s worker shortage crisis,” he said. “This is an opportunity to do something about it. In a nation as powerful and prosperous as ours, somehow the United States is the only developed nation in the world without a national paid leave program.”
During the hearing, Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) shared about the story of an activist who is part of a network of grassroots caregivers advocating to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit, “A constituent of mine, Barbara Gurley, came to my office to talk about her caregiving experience for her late husband. She was talking about how often he fell and the challenges that she had making sure that they could take care of him before he passed away. The Gurley family had insurance but could not access any paid support for the work she was doing and they made too much money for local social services. If there had been a paid leave program in place, Barbara could have taken paid time off to care for her husband when he really needed it. So we know this is real hard work, caregiving.”
Often advocates don’t get a sense that raising their voices matters – but Barbara was at the hearing as the senator spoke and got to meet him right after. As efforts continue to enact national paid leave policies, it will be crucial that we remind policymakers that real people would benefit from these policies.