Editorial: Paid family leave is good business

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Every day, New Hampshire employers are bidding in hundreds if not thousands of silent auctions. They are seeking not items but the services of reliable, skilled employees. New Hampshire’s unemployment rate is a mere 2.6 percent. Massachusetts is at 3.5 percent and Vermont at 2.8. Workers are scarce.

For the state to prosper it must make competitive bids for the talent it needs. To do that, lawmakers must pass House Bill 628, legislation that would create a paid family and medical leave insurance program. Under it, eligible employees could take up to 12 weeks of emergency leave per year at roughly half pay to bond with a newborn, care for a sick relative or heal after their own illness or operation.

A handful of states, including California and New York, already have established paid medical leave policies. Vermont and Massachusetts are likely to do so this year. New Hampshire is a risk of being outbid in the market for labor.

Absent a state law that creates an insurance pool, the state’s small businesses, which employ the majority of workers, can’t afford to offer their employees paid family leave. The law would create a medical leave fund administered through the unemployment compensation system. Employers would have the option of paying 0.5 percent of an employee’s wages into the fund, giving employees the option of contributing one half of one percent of their earnings to the fund, or divide the cost between worker and employer.

The bill has the support of more than 100 employers, including the Duprey Companies, Concord Hospital and the Grappone Auto Group, because they want to compete locally and regionally for employees and retain current workers.

California has more than a decade of experience with paid family leave. All contributions to its insurance fund come from employees. Business surveys say the effects have ranged from positive to minimal, but attrition rates, particularly for new mothers, were reduced significantly.

Lawmakers should also pass the bill because it’s the right thing to do. Medical bills are responsible for more than half of all bankruptcies. Paid family leave won’t eliminate that problem, but it could save people from job loss and financial ruin.

New Hampshire is also competing in the global economy. The U.S. is alone among developed countries in not providing paid parental leave. Germany offers 57 weeks, Poland 24, Russia 28, China 13, Kazakhstan 18, Peru 13. Federal law grants workers in companies with more than 50 employees up to 12 weeks of emergency medical leave, but it’s unpaid so few people can afford to stay out longer than absolutely necessary.

A 2017 documentary, Zero Weeks by Chicago filmmaker Ky Dickens, illustrates the plight of workers in a nation that’s failed to come to the aid of its families. Only 14 percent of American workers have paid family leave benefits. Dickens interviewed a cancer victim who had to schedule her radiation treatments on her lunch hour because she couldn’t afford to take time off. She found mothers who lacked the time to bond with their babies, people torn between the need to care for a parent or spouse and the need to keep their families afloat financially.

It doesn’t have to be that way. HB 628 deserves to become law.