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Liz Ben-Ishai's picture

When fast food workers bravely took to the streets in September to protest the unlivable wages that many earn, the media shone a spotlight on the exploitative and unsustainable practices of some large employers. But while these unscrupulous businesses deserve all the attention they are getting, they don’t represent the majority of business owners. In fact, many workers are lucky enough to work for businesses that truly care about them—businesses that know the value of their employees and want to do what’s right for them, including ensuring access to paid leave.

As Rob Everts, co-executive director of Equal Exchange, says: “Because we see our workers as human beings, who have human needs, we think it’s crucial that they have access to paid time away from work to care for their families and their health.” Bluebottle Coffee Company’s James Freeman concurs: “I know I want that for my own family; so as an owner, it makes sense that my 225 employees should have this chance to care for their families too.”

This week, high road employers like Everts and Freeman are coming out in support of the FAMILY Act, federal legislation introduced today by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representative Rosa DeLauro. This law would create a paid family and medical leave insurance program to enable workers to take time away from work to recover from serious illness, care for a sick loved one, or bond with a new child. Businesses are on board because it would enable them to support their valued employees without having to bear the full costs of offering paid leave. The program, which would be funded by small contributions from employers and employees, would allow workers to take up to 12 weeks of partially paid leave.

This kind of program would make a huge difference in workers’ lives. Only 11 percent of private sector workers currently have paid family leave, and fewer than forty percent have access to disability insurance for personal medical leave. Under the FAMILY Act, a majority of workers could breathe a sigh of relief knowing that caring for a sick parent or child or welcoming a newborn wouldn’t push them into economic insecurity. Moreover, the program would boost the economy; when workers are secure in their jobs and able to handle life’s inevitable obstacles without fear of income or job loss, they’re more likely to put money back into the economy. That’s money they’ll spend in their communities to help sustain local and national businesses.

Conscientious employers care about their employees, but also have to mind the bottom line. The FAMILY Act makes business sense because employers’ financial contributions to the program are minimal, while the potential benefits for productivity and employee loyalty are great. Cynthia DiBartolo, CEO of Tigress Financial Partners, explains: “Companies can measurably improve their bottom line by transforming a company’s corporate culture into one of a truly caring organization—which basically means, putting the interests of their employees first!” According to DiBartolo, the FAMILY Act “will help businesses to do what’s good for employees and good for the bottom line.” That’s probably why, as polling from Small Business Majority shows, a plurality of small business owners from across the country support a family and medical leave insurance program like the one proposed under FAMILY.

The FAMILY Act builds on the success of state-level family leave insurance programs, like those in California and New Jersey. Rhode Island recently passed a family leave insurance law, as well, and will soon implement the program. The experiences of California and New Jersey further demonstrate the benefits of paid leave for workers, business owners, and the economy. In California, nine out of ten employers report either positive effects or no effect of paid family leave insurance on business operations. And 91 percent of workers in low-wage jobs who used paid leave say it helped them to better care for a new child.

California and New Jersey business owners’ experiences bring these already compelling statistics to life. Herb Greenberg, founder and CEO of Caliper Corp in New Jersey, describes his state’s program as “a huge positive” for his business. He says the policy has helped Caliper Corp’s bottom line, pointing to “the cost of individuals leaving, the cost of seeking new employees, [and] the cost of training them.” In California, Vince Siciliano, president and CEO of New Resource Bank, says his state’s policy “support[s] workers and help[s] businesses come out ahead by building a stronger workforce.” Both Greenberg and Siciliano think it’s high time for a national policy. “It’s a no-brainer,” says Greenberg.

Paid family and medical leave is long overdue in this country. The FAMILY Act comes at a time when workers need the economic security of paid leave more than ever. And this proposal that is not just palatable to business owners, it’s a model that many can embrace wholeheartedly. That’s because, by and large, most employers want to be both profitable and fair, ensuring their most valuable resources—their employees—are well cared for. Sometimes it’s a heavy lift to reconcile both goals. But if passed, the FAMILY Act will make it easy.

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