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Most Pa. workers can’t take paid leave to care for sick loved ones. State law could change that

A coalition of women is trying to get paid family medical leave on the books in Pennsylvania, which would expand sick time benefits for all workers.

  • By Kristen Mosbrucker-Garza/WHYY
The state capitol as seen at night on Aug. 24, 2023.

 Rachel McDevitt / StateImpact Pennsylvania

The state capitol as seen at night on Aug. 24, 2023.

The majority of workers in Pennsylvania don’t get a choice to stay home and still get paid when they or their loved ones are recovering from a serious illness.

Instead, most employees exhaust any paid time off they’ve earned on the job, such as sick, personal and vacation days. Then, they can take unpaid leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act, a federal law passed in the mid-1990s that guarantees employers can’t fire employees while they are on the mend.

About 66 percent of workers statewide don’t have paid family and medical leave benefits, according to a U.S. Census compensation survey from March 2022.

And the brunt of that unpaid work often falls on any women in the household, said Meghan Pierce, CEO of the Executive Forum of Women in Philadelphia.

Pierce said it’s a common story among members of her nonprofit organization with about 600 professionals.

“Juggling the need to care for children, parents or a sick relative while trying to advance your career,” she said.

The Executive Forum of Women, created in the late 1970s, is one organization in the coalition of nonprofits and businesses pushing to get paid family medical leave as a state law in Pennsylvania. After 12 years of debate and failed legislation, advocates say there’s more bipartisan support than ever to change the law.

Pennsylvania Democrats are pushing for the change and are expected to introduce the bill in the House and Senate in mid-March.

Executive Forum of Women co-founder and CEO of Diversified Search Group, Judith von Seldeneck, pitches the proposed state law as good for businesses.

The organization is encouraging business leaders to ask their representatives to introduce the bill and get it passed this year.

“I’ve had a front-row seat many times as gifted managers tried to decide whether to move to a new job in a new state. These are complex decisions, with family issues often weighing heavily,” Seldeneck wrote in an Inquirer op-ed. “Pennsylvania is competing for business investment and talent against states that have set up paid leave programs.”

There’s already a law in New Jersey known as Family Leave Insurance where workers can get benefits after paying state taxes to support it.

That’s the structure Pennsylvania Democrats propose, which is a model similar to social security, where everyone pays up front for a benefit used later.

But it’s not what Republicans say they’re willing to move through the legislature.

Mike Jones, a York County Republican and retired business executive, criticized the bill when it was proposed last year during a House Labor and Industry committee meeting.

“This is a terrible bill that further compounds our terrible economic environment that we have here in our state,” Jones said. “I wish I could vote like 30 times against it. If you’re not retaining your employees you offer family medical leave if they don’t like what you offer, they go work somewhere else. If you can’t compete, you go out of business, it takes care of itself.”

Instead, some Republicans pitched the idea of a business tax credit if a company adopts paid family and medical leave policies. But advocates complain that means the program would be optional, not required.

In 2017, the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry Center for Workforce Information and Analysis studied the potential cost of the payroll tax idea to fund the program. The average weekly cost for workers would be between $2.37 and $5.20 as a payroll tax.

Some businesses already do offer extra sick benefits, though it’s usually a paid parental leave situation, which is reserved for the arrival of a new child in the family – not a serious illness.

Any paid family and medical leave benefits are “framed as an issue just for working moms or something that people don’t necessarily think that they will need for themselves,” said Amal Bass, co-executive director of the Women’s Law Project in Philadelphia.

But Bass argues that it benefits both men and women, whether or not they have children, and it is most impactful for low-wage workers, who are least likely to be able to afford unpaid work.

Such a guaranteed benefit could also make a dent in the gender pay gap.

“It’s really a pay equity issue because we see people who are forced out of the workforce then they end up having a gap in their career and a loss of income that they don’t easily make up later on,” she said.



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