PROVIDENCE, R.I. — As President Barack Obama pushes for a federal law to get paid leave to care for a new baby or an ailing relative, residents of one of the three states that already provide it sing its praises, hinting at the reception it could receive if rolled out nationally.
Rhode Island last year began allowing workers to take up to four weeks of paid leave. Many workers say they love the program, and employers say it hasn’t hurt business as some had feared.
Anne Quirk, of Providence, had planned to take three months of unpaid leave from her job as a speech language pathologist after she gave birth. But she needed five months off after her doctor ordered her on bedrest on Mother’s Day last year; then, her son was born prematurely in June.
“It was just such a stress reliever, knowing there was going to be money to help us pay the bills,” said Quirk, who gushed about the program to Obama when he visited Rhode Island in October. “I don’t know what we would’ve done without it.”
About 5,000 people have taken paid family leave in Rhode Island so far. New Jersey and California are the other states that provide it, and several states are considering it. Washington state passed legislation but has put off implementing it.
The United States is the only industrialized nation that doesn’t mandate paid leave for mothers of newborns. Obama wants Congress to allocate more than $2 billion to help states create paid family and medical leave programs, and he wants to provide federal workers with additional paid leave.
Rhode Island has a long-standing program that pays a portion of an employee’s salary when he or she is unable to work because of illness or injury. The temporary caregiver insurance program was folded into that existing program to compensate workers who leave their jobs temporarily to care for a relative or bond with a new baby.
Workers pay for both through a payroll deduction. The benefit for family leave amounts to about 60 percent of an employee’s regular paycheck, capped at $770 per week. Employees received a total of $6.3 million in payments in 2014.
Not every worker can get the benefit. Some haven’t paid enough into the system, and public-sector employees don’t pay for the insurance.
Obama said during the October visit that Rhode Island “has got the right idea” and that the nation needs to broaden its laws for family leave. Hillary Rodham Clinton, seeking to succeed Obama as president, advocated for it in a Mother’s Day campaign video.
Democrats haven’t been able to garner enough support for a bill in Congress to allow workers to earn up to seven days of paid sick leave to care for themselves or a sick relative, obtain preventive care or treat domestic violence. Opponents generally say requiring paid leave could burden businesses in lost hours and temporary hires or extra work needed to cover workers on leave.
Senate Republicans, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have proposed allowing voluntary arrangements where private-sector workers put the overtime they earn toward paid leave rather than extra compensation, an alternative to the Democrats’ approach.
In Rhode Island, Republican state Rep. Brian Newberry said he thinks the state’s paid family leave bill is one of the worst pieces of legislation passed in his seven years in the House. It hurts businesses and imposes a tax on many people who never use it, said Newberry, the House minority leader. He thinks the insurance should be privatized.
Legislators are considering allowing employees covered by disability insurance through their employers to opt out of the state program.
“The disruption to a business when a key person leaves for that length of time is immense,” Newberry said. “There’s nothing good about that bill.”
Republican state Sen. Christopher Scott Ottiano also opposed the bill out of fear it would be onerous for businesses, but he said his thinking is “evolving.” Ottiano, a doctor, has seen how the program has helped many of his patients.
Rhode Island businesses say it has barely made a ripple.
At the state’s largest employer, the Lifespan health system, 500 employees have used it and it’s been a ‘nonissue,’ said spokeswoman Gail Leach Carvelli. The Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training said it has heard no concerns from small businesses since the rollout.
General Dynamics Electric Boat said they’ve easily been able to accommodate the nine people who have taken leave. Other businesses said the same.
Karen Friend, a Providence professor, took four weeks off last year after her husband, who has early onset Alzheimer’s disease, was hospitalized with tremors. She used the time to make sure he was medically stable and hire help.
“I’m very proud of our state for being so advanced. It’s unacceptable that we are fine with people, like me, around the country being unpaid caregivers,” Friend said. “It’s a lot more expensive to have to bring people into institutions. This is not just a Rhode Island issue.”
And David Deary, a Providence physician assistant, didn’t have to choose between going to work or caring for his 3-year-old son, Caleb, who was born with a rare brain malformation and died in December. His wife, Nicole, also took paid leave.
“For us to not have to worry about finances and just be able to focus completely on him,” Deary said, “it was enormous.”