By Randy George
Vermont has a high proportion of service industry business and, therefore, a great need for skilled, dedicated individuals to perform those jobs. My wife and I have owned and operated Red Hen Baking Company for nearly 18 years and our greatest challenge is attracting and retaining this kind of workforce. It turns out that our employees are also our greatest asset.
It’s no secret that any of our intelligent, hard-working staff could find employment in other fields that would afford them more financial stability. But in many cases, this would mean leaving the work they love and perhaps even moving out of state. We have seen employees make that decision.
From the time we started our business, our goal has been to create a workplace that supports our employees not only with a positive work environment but also with pay and benefits that will allow for our people to stay with us as they mature and settle down and, if they choose, start a family.
Most of our full-time employees (and even some part-timers) earn a livable wage and all of them have disability insurance and access to paid time off; they have the opportunity to invest in a company-matched retirement account and with a small contribution on their part they enjoy the peace of mind of full health care coverage. Missing from this list is a key benefit – one that nearly every working person is going to need at least once in their working life: paid family leave.
Although many larger companies can afford to offer this benefit to their employees, it would be far too expensive for most small businesses to afford to pay people for up to 12 weeks while they are not working. (Keep in mind that when we speak about small businesses, we are talking about a group that, collectively, amounts to the largest employer in the state.)
Yet, aside from health insurance, paid family leave is probably of more importance and value than any of the benefits that we currently offer at our business. In just the last five years, six of our employees have had babies. Each time, these new parents dealt not only with the strain of having a new baby in the house, but they were also faced with the dilemma of how to maintain their income. No new fathers that work for us have taken more than two weeks off of work. Most new mothers have taken far less than the recommended three months before returning to work.
We have yet to have an employee take time to care for an ill or aging family member, although there have been some cases where employees would have taken some leave to do so, had a plan been in place for them. Yet, despite how much we would like to offer paid family leave to people in these positions, it is impossible for a service industry business of our size to even consider funding our own paid family leave plan.
Fortunately, a solution to this problem has been proposed and is currently being considered by our Legislature: It’s called the FaMLI bill, or H.196. H.196 would create an insurance pool made up of all the workers in the state. By contributing just 0.93 percent of their pay to this pool, all employees in Vermont would be able to take the time away from work when their family needs them most without a concern for how they will pay their bills and put food on the table. If ever there was a good example of strength in numbers, this is it.
If every employee in the state contributed this small amount, eligible employees would be able to receive up to 12 weeks of leave with full pay. Although there are employees who do currently enjoy this benefit through their employer, it is the employees of businesses like ours that need this benefit the most. Although I like to think that we are compensating our employees at a level that puts them ahead of a paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle, I know that the cushion for people making in the neighborhood of $25,000 to $40,000 a year to take unpaid time off is not more than a couple of weeks at best.
We have watched several of our employees juggle infant children and a full-time work schedule. It does not have to be this way. Workers in CA, NJ, RI, NY and DC are spared the stress of how to maintain their income when they have a child or need to care for an ill family member because these states already have state-sponsored family and medical leave insurance programs.
A system like this works because everyone contributes. As a state that believes in taking care of one another, we should all support a system where everyone contributes so that all Vermont workers can take the time they need to care for themselves and their families.
Study after study confirms the benefits of family leave. Consider the following:
• Children whose mothers do not return to work full time in the first 12 weeks are more likely to receive medical checkups.
• Mothers who take at least 12 weeks of leave are also more likely to breastfeed, with important, lasting health benefits for their children.
• Fathers who take longer leaves experience greater engagement in their children’s lives and greater paternal engagement has cognitive and developmental advantages for children.
• For new birth mothers, having less than 12 weeks of family leave is associated with increased symptoms of postpartum depression.
• People who have paid leave recover more quickly from injuries and have a reduced risk of developing chronic issues.
All of the above are issues that disproportionately affect lower and middle income people and make it much harder for them to break out of a cycle of poverty. When viewed in this light, it becomes clear that a paid family leave program could go a long way toward addressing our growing income inequality problem. Family and medical leave insurance, H.196, will improve the well-being of our families, small businesses and state economy.
Randy George lives in Moretown.