Caring for babies or family with medical issues takes people away from their jobs. Some, especially the lowest wage earners, don’t get those jobs back. To support care work, Oregon was the ninth state to pass a Paid Family and Medical Leave Act.
The Build Back Better Act, which failed to pass the Senate last December, included some paid family and medical leave, or PFML. Andrea Paluso is Executive Director of Family Forward, an advocacy group that helped shape Oregon’s law. She told KLCC, “That we’re going to emerge out of a pandemic with no standards for sick time or medical leave, and remain one of the only countries in the world, that gives no protected leave at the national level, is shocking to me.”
For now, states are passing their own bills. Oregon’s supports people who are welcoming a new child through birth, adoption or foster care, or who are ill or caring for sick family, with up to 12 weeks of paid time off. Paluso said, “We’ve seen historically the impacts of not having this program in place are really held most by women and by people of color.”
She noted other states with PFML pay a flat percent of earnings. They argued for better coverage in Oregon. “We really wanted to approach having a structure that was more accessible by having our lowest wage workers earn 100 percent of their wages while out on leave,” Paluso said, “because if you’re earning minimum wage you really can’t get by with less.”
People with higher salaries will get a lower percentage, but may still be paid more in total.
Under a national law, people can take unpaid leave and some employers offer paid leave, but often, that’s not enough. Luz Quevedo had a son two years ago, and left a job at the University of Oregon, because the commute from Salem was too long. “When he’s like eight months, I got a part time (job),” she said. “But when I got the part time is when I was sick. And that job, they don’t do family, you know like, medical leave. So I had to quit.”
The illness, the loss of her paycheck, and a young son made it a stressful time. Quevedo spoke about a friend with a child about the same age. “I know friends, they have babies but, they don’t, they don’t pay after they have a baby in that job. And then she needed to go back to work because they don’t pay. She got two weeks and she go back.”
Paluso has also heard of people getting just two weeks of leave after childbirth. She said, “I’m so looking forward to more of our families having that event be less stressful and more joyful and more secure.”
The law passed in August 2019, but it’s not in effect yet. It’s a big program that includes new insurance and tax systems. During COVID, Oregon’s Employment Department took on unemployment claims and federal programs, so the rollout was pushed back.
Paloma Sparks is a Vice President at Oregon Business and Industry. She helped craft the bill on behalf of Oregon’s employers, especially small businesses. She said, “In Washington employers with 50 or fewer (employees) don’t have to pay into the system and are generally exempted from being covered under their paid family leave law. So it’s frustrating ours is 25.”
Sparks negotiated to give companies some choices. For example, there are grants for small businesses to hire replacements for people out on leave.
Oregon’s PFML will begin payroll deductions in January, 2023, and start paying for leave that September. The tax is no more than one percent of wages, with employees paying 60 percent. Sparks thinks it’ll be rocky at first, and told KLCC, “I’m concerned about how employees are going to react to a tax that they may not benefit from, and having other employees be out, and how that impacts the workforce on the whole.”
Matt Barnes is a high school coach, among other jobs, and takes classes at the U of O. He said, to him, the effects of people having to cover shifts in a small company has more validity than the tax. He told KLCC, “To actually be able to support people and prioritize family, because that’s been so stripped from our day to day and everything, being able to do that is huge and a one percent tax, personally, I could care less.”
Barnes and his partner Drea Smith are due to have a baby this summer. He asked her, in an ideal world… “How long would you like for me to be in home to support you before I go back to work? And she told me two months. And so thinking through that, I’m trying to figure out how I can manage that and how much money I can save until then.”
She told him if she could, she’d take 12 weeks. I asked if it’d feel different if they were in this situation next year, and he said, “For sure. Because then, the question of ‘in an ideal world, what would this look like?’ is then like, ‘What are we going to do?’ because we know that we’re going to have that support.”
Andrea Paluso thinks the law will make the workforce stronger. Paloma Sparks agrees, especially for lower wage workers. Both will watch as the law takes effect, to be sure employees and employers are well served.
Funding for KLCC’s “Workin’ It” series comes from the University of Oregon’s Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics.