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RI Considers Paid Leave for Family Caregivers

June 16, 2013

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — When Jennifer Marks was pregnant with her son Shawn, her doctor ordered her on bed rest. She lost her job and her family struggled to pay the bills on her husband’s pay as a mechanic.

People like Marks who care for a new child or sick loved one could continue receiving pay for up to eight weeks under a proposal pending in Rhode Island’s General Assembly. Workers would pay for the program through a payroll deduction. Employees making $43,000 a year would see their pay decrease by 83 cents a week.

‘‘I’m the poster child for this,’’ said Marks, of Pawtucket, whose son, now 1, was born premature and facing health problems related to his development in the womb. ‘‘There are people who spend $2 at Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks every day. It’s worth it to pay less than that every week to make sure you don’t have to leave your job to take care of your family.’’

The proposal would apply to those who must take time away from work to care for a new child — following a birth or adoption — or a sick child, parent or spouse. If passed, the benefit would be phased in over three years, with up to four weeks of paid leave available in the first year, six weeks in the second year and the full eight weeks available in the third year.

While paid family leave is widespread in other industrialized countries, it’s still a rarity in the U.S., offered only in California and New Jersey. Washington state has taken steps to join the list but hasn’t yet implemented the program.

Federal law requires public employers and companies with 50 or more workers to allow for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave.

The bill in Rhode Island is supported by advocacy groups like the AARP and Rhode Island Kids Count, who argue that paid family leave would help ensure that individuals can care for vulnerable loved ones without risking poverty.

Critics, however, said the idea amounts to a tax on employees and would also burden employers who will have to hire temporary workers or keep the position vacant for up to eight weeks.

‘‘I think it will raise holy hell for small businesses,’’ said Sen. David Bates, R-Barrington. ‘‘There is just no way this is good for the employer.’’

However, Sen. Gayle Goldin, D-Providence, said her proposal would help small businesses compete with larger ones that may already offer paid family leave. She said it would also make Rhode Island a more attractive place to start or expand a business.

‘‘It means that people don’t have to quit their jobs or go on unemployment to care for a loved one,’’ she said. ‘‘I think anybody who has had the experience of having to take care of an elderly parent, caring for a sick spouse or a new child understands why we need this.’’

The state already has a temporary disability insurance program that pays workers if they must take a leave of absence from their employer for a personal injury or illness. That program is also funded through a payroll deduction.

Expanding that program to ensure workers are paid during family leave not only benefit workers but also reduces long-term health care costs and government welfare payments while ensuring that newborns and newly adopted children have time to bond with their parents, according to Barbara Silver, a University of Rhode Island faculty member who studies work-life balance.

‘‘Too often we tend to think of children and caregiving as private choices rather than as a common good,’’ she said.

The bill was reviewed last week by the Senate Finance Committee. No vote has been scheduled, but Goldin said she is optimistic it will pass before lawmakers adjourn for the year in a few weeks. The bill has at least one powerful supporter: Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed is a co-sponsor.

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