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Labor Department is pushing states to create their own paid family leave programs

By: Danielle Paquette, The Washington Post
August 10, 2016 Updated: August 11, 2016 at 4:04 pm
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In California, the first state to guarantee paid family leave for all workers since 2004, payroll deductions fund a state-run insurance pool that allows employees to take off up to six weeks at partial income. Working parents in New Jersey and Rhode Island receive comparable benefits. New York state, meanwhile, recently passed similar laws that ensure compensation doesn't disappear when employees pause work to care for a new child or sick relative.

The public programs provide pay for workers whose employers don't offer the benefit - and the federal government wants to see these local efforts spread.

The U.S. Labor Department on Tuesday announced it will grant $1.1 million to six states and municipalities that want to start their own paid family-leave programs. The recipients - Denver; Franklin, Ohio; Madison, Wis.; and the states of Hawaii, Indiana and Pennsylvania - will use the money to research how much it would cost to open the public aid to its residents, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said.

"Our nation has increasingly recognized we are far behind the world on this critical issue," he said. "We live in a modern family world, and we need to stop living by 'Leave It To Beaver' rules."

The United States guarantees just 12 weeks of job-protected time off to new parents - none of which is paid. The issue is also fiercely divisive: The Democratic Party believes all workers should be paid for those 12 weeks leave, while the Republican Party platform makes no mention of a paid leave policy. Republican leaders have argued such rules would damage business and discourage employers from hiring young women.

Some oppose local mandates, too. Rhode Island state Rep. Brian Newberry told CBS News last year the publicly funded paid-leave program effectively imposes a tax on many people who would never benefit from it. The insurance, he said, should be private.

As American women surged into the workforce - female breadwinners now support about 40 percent of households - companies started adding paid leave as a way to attract and retain talent. Fifty-eight percent of large American firms offer some paid maternity leave, a 2014 Labor Department study found. But only 12 percent of all private-sector workers receive paid family-leave to care for a newborn or ailing relative, government data show.

Thus far, only three states - California, New Jersey and Rhode Island - guarantee paid family leave for all workers. Each covers at least four weeks, paying at least 55 percent of employees' full income, financed through employee-funded temporary disability insurance programs. New York passed a measure to add the benefit earlier this year, which goes into effect in 2018.

San Francisco took a different approach in April, becoming the first city in the country to require businesses to fund their employees' leave. As for federal workers, President Obama signed an executive order last year allowing federal workers to take off up to six weeks of paid leave.

The new Labor Department grants are the latest installment of the Paid Leave Analysis Grant Program that has allocated more than $3 million to 17 states and municipalities over the last two years to support research on how to create local paid leave programs that fit a particular area's needs.

The Hawaii Department of Human Services will collect $240,000 to study how the state could adopt a program similar to those in California, New Jersey and Rhode island. Pennsylvania's Department of Labor and Industry, for example, will receive a $250,000 federal grant to run a cost-benefit analysis for various homegrown paid family-leave models, according to Philly.com.

Gayle Goldin, a Rhode Island state senator who sponsored the state's paid family leave bill and advocates for the launch of such policies elsewhere, said the funds will help start conversations about the best ways to shape paid family leave in a particular community. Rhode Island, like California and New Jersey, built its program into the state's temporary disability insurance, an employee-funded pool of money available to workers since 1942. In 2013, the state changed the law to allow new parents to tap into the money for four weeks of post-birth care-giving.

"We've seen far better health outcomes," she said, "and a decrease in stress."

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