STL Post-Dispatch Op-Ed: The push for paid family and medical leave in Missouri

By Allison Simmonds and Katherine Landfried

Inherent in American culture is a prevalent competitive nature — the desire as citizens, and as a country, to be the best at everything. So when the United States sits alongside Oman and Papua New Guinea as one of the few countries in the world that do not offer paid maternity leave, it should raise concern. Countries such as the United Kingdom offer 40 weeks of paid maternity leave; and even Iran, widely criticized for its poor stance on human rights, provides 12 weeks’ paid leave.

Despite this huge disparity in the treatment of American working families compared with nearly every other country in the world, the road to providing new parents in the United States the benefit of staying home after the addition of a child has remained stalled, until now. An increasing number of companies are seeing that the implementation of paid family leave benefits not only new parents and their children, but also the economy as a whole.

The push for paid maternity and paternity leave in the St. Louis region and throughout the country has been a hot topic in recent months as many continue to take note of its countless benefits. A study by Maya Rossin published in the Journal of Health Economics showed that maternity leave leads to small increases in birth weight, decreases in the likelihood of a premature birth, and substantial decreases in infant mortality. Expanding this benefit to encompass often-overlooked paternity leave allows new fathers to provide care for the mother and child. Further, it allows fathers crucial bonding time during the early weeks after birth.

With many millennial couples needing to have both partners working to balance the household budget, work-life balance has become a top demand for job seekers. The integration of paid family leave as a routine benefit will make it easier to not only pursue and establish a career, but also to simultaneously start a family.

However, by narrowing leave benefits to new parents, companies are overlooking the need for workers to take time off when a family member is sick. The benefit of paid medical leave will also appeal to older people trying to balance work and home life while taking care of ailing parents. While this pro-family push is making its way through local legislatures, why not extend this movement to encompass leave for a sick family member as well as traditional maternity/paternity leave? To structure the paid family leave movement in such a way as to benefit all working Americans would strengthen its momentum and acceptance nationwide.

Proposed legislation in Missouri would require some companies to offer this wider benefit. Senate Bill 1049, sponsored by Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, aims to establish a Missouri Earned Family and Medical Leave Program. Senate Bill 1049 would entitle all Missouri employees to 30 days of wage replacement benefits to care for a family member with a serious health condition, tend to an employee’s own serious health conditions, or bond with a minor child after birth, adoption or foster care. House Bill 2806, sponsored by Rep. Stacey Newman, D-Richmond Heights; and House Bill 2536, introduced by Rep. Tracy McCreery, D-Olivette, offer similar proposed paid family and medical leave benefits. Both bills would make it unlawful for employers to discharge or discriminate against any individuals who receive family leave benefits.

Of course, this all begs the question: “Where’s the money?” SB 1049, for example, proposes that employees fund the program by contributing .025 percent of their average daily pay to the program. Employers are allowed to contribute at their discretion. The more the employer contributes, the less the employees will have to add. This plan would lay to rest the concern that such legislation would be too burdensome for small businesses. In fact, paid family and medical leave would level the playing field for small businesses by allowing them to better compete with large companies that would typically offer better benefits.

Ordinarily, a benefits package including generous paid leave would sway potential employees to work for larger companies. Mandated employee-funded paid leave would eliminate the current David vs. Goliath battle small businesses currently face when trying to attract qualified employees. A recent article published by the National Partnership for Women & Families states that this benefit would also improve worker retention rates, saving employers money through reduced turnover costs. This would help slow the revolving door currently plaguing many businesses.

The newly formed Missouri Paid Leave Coalition is supporting this proposed Missouri legislation that attempts to respond to the demands of citizens for a healthy work-life balance. This movement is a cause that all Missouri families, employers and workers, regardless of political affiliation, can support. We urge companies, big and small; organizations, state and local; and families, old and young, to support paid family leave in Missouri.

Allison Simmonds and Katherine Landfried just completed their second year of law school at St. Louis University School of Law and work in the Civil Advocacy Clinic. They are members of the recently formed Missouri Paid Leave Coalition.

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