Jill has always believed employers should offer paid family medical leave.
But last week, the concept became much more personal.
“My handsome, healthy husband went to a follow-up appointment for a seemingly innocuous lump on his neck. By that evening, we had a preliminary diagnosis of throat cancer that had spread to the lymph nodes. That was confirmed today,” she testified to lawmakers earlier this week.
Jill has asked OPB not to use her full name since she hasn’t had a chance to inform her family of her husband’s diagnosis yet. Jill is her middle name.
Oregon lawmakers are considering a bill that would create a statewide family and medical leave insurance fund. It would give employees up to 12 weeks of paid leave to take care of themselves or a family member suffering from an illness, 14 weeks to care for a new baby, and six weeks for pregnancy and childbirth-related reasons for a total of up to 32 weeks in one year.
The way House Bill 3031 is currently crafted, the law would apply to all businesses — regardless of size — and be applicable to employees who have worked for more than 90 days. Both employers and employees would contribute to the fund.
Jill and her husband live in Portland and have both been firefighters for more than a decade. She assumed her employer would have some kind of benefit to help her family in an emergency. After all, she told lawmakers, they give “their everything, in the line of service.” However, she found out all she had was a small amount of sick leave.
“I know fear and I know courage — years of racing into burning buildings, crawling into mangled cars and calming my own racing pulse when I’ve restarted the stopped hearts of others. I have felt nervous and honestly, at times, afraid,” she told lawmakers. “But I have never felt a fear like this.”
The couple has four children and a mortgage.
“I fear what our months to come will look like. How will I pay the mortgage, maintain some semblance of normal for our kids and take care of my warrior of a husband?” she said.
Oregon lawmakers listened to hours of testimony on the measure on Monday night. People spoke of not having enough time to take care of a new child or choosing between a paycheck and taking care of a sick parent.
But small business owners, several farmers in particular, also spoke of what offering paid sick leave would do to them.
Dylan Wells is a second-generation farmer from Woodburn. During the peak season, Wells told lawmakers, his farm used to hire about 700 employees and then slowly reduce to about one or two people during the off-season.
But lately, with the recent increase of minimum wages, changes to the health care requirements and a possible gross receipts tax looming, Wells told lawmakers, the regulations have caused his farm to scale way back, farm fewer acres and cut back on employees.
Offering someone weeks of paid sick leave, Wells said, and then with the possibility of that person missing the entire peak season, would make it difficult for his farm to continue to survive.
“Our margins are tight,” he said.
During the 2015 legislative session, Oregon lawmakers approved a statewide sick leave policy, requiring employers with 10 or more workers to offer up to five paid sick days a year.
They have floated legislation to mandate paid family medical leave in previous sessions without success however. Because the bill works a lot like a payroll tax and raises revenue, the Legislature needs a three-fifths majority of lawmakers to approve it.
It’s unclear whether the measure will have enough support this session.
The Washington Legislature recently approved a paid family and medical leave law which allows workers to take 12 weeks off with pay to take care of a child, themselves or a family member who is sick.