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Can Rhode Island’s paid family leave be a national model?

April 16, 2017 at 4:17 PM EDT
In 1993, former President Bill Clinton signed into law the Family and Medical Leave Act, granting unpaid family leave to millions in the U.S. Decades later, the country has yet to implement a paid family leave policy -- but some states have created their own policies. The NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker went to one of those states, Rhode Island, to see how it works.

By Christopher Booker and Connie Kargbo

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Living and working in Rhode Island, Julie Moura hit the family leave lottery.

JULIE MOURA: Not only did I get 20 weeks off, but I got 20 weeks paid. It’s like peace of mind, right. You’re going out and you know that you’re going to continue to get paid at the same pay, and so you’re not worrying about that piece. You’re focusing on bonding with the baby.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Her lengthy maternity leave was a combination of a rare state insurance program and her employer’s paid family leave policy. She works for the Rhode Island based toy company, Hasbro, the makers of Mr.Potato Head, My Little Pony, and some of America’s most well known board games.

DOLPH JOHNSON: You know, we want to be an employer of choice and talent, for us, is everything.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Dolph Johnson heads Hasbro’s human resources team. He says paid family leave is a benefit that entices quality employees to work for the company.

DOLPH JOHNSON: Not only are we recruiting great talent, but that great talent, they’re recruiting companies. So it’s really important for us to make sure that they understand how much immense value we put on raising kids, and how important that is, because, you know, that’s central to our business.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Johnson says companies like Disney, Google, and Netflix are models Hasbro has tried to emulate in offering paid family leave. Disney offers 12 weeks of maternity leave, Google, four months, and Netflix, up to a year of parental leave.

But those companies and Hasbro are rare. Only 13 percent of American private sector workers have any kind of paid family leave.

In fact, the 1993 federal Family and Medical Leave Act requires employers only to offer 12 weeks of unpaid leave.

Companies with 50 or fewer employees are exempt, so only about 60 percent of American workers are covered.

Rhode Island decided to go further than federal law. It requires employees to pay into a state fund so they can take paid family leave. So whether you work for retail giant, Urban Outfitters or a small vintage clothing store, you are eligible.

Rhode Island’s program allows eligible employees to collect about 60 percent of their salary for four weeks to care for a newborn, an adopted or foster child. Employees can also the benefit to care for a seriously ill child, a parent, a spouse, a domestic partner, a parent-in-law or grandparent.

The program, called Temporary Caregiver Insurance, or TCI, is an extension of the state’s long standing disability insurance. Funded by a 1.2 percent payroll tax on most Rhode Island employees, even part-time workers are eligible for the insurance program. The maximum benefit paid out is about $800 a week and workers who take it are guaranteed their job back

When Rhode Island implemented the law in 2014, it became only the third state to mandate paid family leave, after California and New Jersey. Next year, New York is scheduled to join them.

Julie Moura, who already had paid family leave offered by her company, got even more paid time off. And because of the state mandate, her husband was able to join her for four weeks when their last baby was born.

JULIE MOURA: I think that my husband and I both were able to not stress as much as we did the first time and know that we had these additional weeks and the additional amount of pay. So it, I mean, invaluable time.

GAYLE GOLDIN: There was certainly strong support from the public.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Rhode Island state senator, Gayle Goldin sponsored the family leave law. The Democrat was inspired by her personal experience. 16 years ago, a serious back injury left her on disability for several weeks.

GAYLE GOLDIN: Thankfully, Rhode Island had this temporary disability insurance in place, and so I was able to use that to cover my own care. But my husband did not have access to that in order to care give for me. And that’s really when we realized what a stressor that was on a family when you need to be able to take care of somebody else.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Senator Goldin says in Rhode Island, the law is meant to fill the gap, especially in a state ranked 9th in residents over age 65.

GAYLE GOLDIN: The reality is that most children have their parents in the workforce, and most people are trying to deal with aging parents and young children at the same time. It’s important that even if people who don’t have children, they do have loved ones that are going to get seriously ill at some point. It’s a reality we all experience. So this is a way that we can ensure that everybody has at least some minimum benefit when they need to be able to be out of work to deal with those issues.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: After the paid family leave law was implemented, the state Labor Department contracted University of Rhode Island sociologist Helen Mederer and psychologist Barbara Silver to study the program.

BARBARA SILVER: The people who took TCI were more likely to endorse better physical health, they were more likely to initiate and sustain breastfeeding for new children, they reported less stress, and less family stress, which as we know is a major problem.

HELEN MEDERER: We also found a significantly lower rate of absenteeism after returning to work, among people who use TCI.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: But the researchers did find a difference in just who was using the benefit. Across all income groups, loss of pay was the most frequently reported reason for not using the paid family leave program, but higher earners were more likely to use the benefit.

BARBARA SILVER: So lower wage workers not only don’t have the ability to take what’s offered to them, from the state, but they don’t have any employer benefits, they can’t afford alternative care, and so they’re left with nothing, and they’re left with very unhappy choices. Do I leave my sick child at home, and go to work? Do I not go to work, and lose my job? Do I reduce myself to part time? Do I go on public assistance? Which is what a lot of people have to do.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Throughout the state, a majority of small and medium-sized employers support the program. Only a quarter oppose it. That opposition is strongest among small businesses.

MICHAEL CHENEVERT: Mike Chenevert runs Swissline Precision, a manufacturing company that produces components of medical, aerospace, and other commercial products. Most of his 51 employees are highly skilled technicians who run complex machines.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: How much training does it take to get an employee up to speed to be able to respond to these orders?

MICHAEL CHENEVERT: To get somebody where they can program and set up a machine, it does take some time and investment.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: So, six months or..?

MICHAEL CHENEVERT: It can take upwards of a year.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Chenevert says that even though as an employer he doesn’t have to pay into the TCI program, there is a cost. Losing even one worker for four weeks of paid family leave can hurt the company’s productivity.

MICHAEL CHENEVERT: We’ve always been a family-oriented company. We’ve always tried to work with our employees and give them the time that they need to take care of their families. It can really be devastating in some aspects. Especially if it’s a top-notch, someone that’s going to be setting up and programming the machines. I lose one person that does that, it definitely can put a lot of burden on the other employees that are in our facility.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: While the federal family leave law exempts companies with 50 or fewer employees, Rhode Island’s law does not.

MICHAEL CHENEVERT: You do have big companies that are multibillion dollar companies, then you have smaller companies like ourselves. I mean it’s, it can be daunting to try to kind of put everybody in the same bucket. Some of the big companies have a lot more resources than we do. And they also offer different benefit packages that we may not be able to meet.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: We met with a small business owner, and while he is supportive of the effort, his criticism is that the productivity hit that he takes.

GAYLE GOLDIN: The reality is, people have heart attacks whether or not you have temporary disability insurance in place. So businesses already have to deal with that, the loss of somebody being out of office or out of the manufacturing company or wherever they are. You know, I think what is important to know is this is at least giving relief to the employee. And to the employer, now they only have one thing that they have to deal with, which is how to fill up that space while the employee’s out.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: John Simmons would like the family leave insurance program to be optional. He’s executive director of the Rhode Island public expenditure council, a business-funded policy research organization.

JOHN SIMMONS: So we believe the opt-out should be provided for employees. There is a whole market out there on short- and long-term disability that could replace it. Could be mobile, could be portable by the employee as well.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: While companies like Hasbro believe offering paid family leave beyond the state mandate gives it a recruitment advantage, Simmons worries the mandate to offer Temporary Caregiver Insurance hurts competition for jobs with neighboring states.

JOHN SIMMONS: Massachusetts and Connecticut do not offer TCI, so we now are at a disadvantage because people thought that was the right approach to go Think of this as a market-driven question. The employer should be able to offer it or not offer it.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: About 15-thousand Rhode Island residents have taken paid family leave in the past three years. Now, senator Goldin is currently working on a bill to double the state paid family leave benefit from the maximum four weeks to eight.

GAYLE GOLDIN: We can’t rely solely on the private sector to solve this. It’s certainly good when a company does step up, but it’s not the solution.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Because it is not enough?

GAYLE GOLDIN: It won’t cover everybody, and this shouldn’t rely on winning the boss lottery in order to get the benefits that you need. This is something that we all should be invested in and making sure that everybody has it.