Paid family and medical leave could become a reality in Pennsylvania

Person holding a newborn's hand.

Christian Huber’s life revolves around caring for other people.

The 24-year-old music major at Bucks County Community College in Pennsylvania is involved with suicide prevention efforts at his school, serves as a job coach for people with disabilities, works with his local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and ultimately plans to become a therapist.

There are times, however, when Huber needs a helping hand himself — and he’s hoping for assistance in the form of a paid family and medical leave program in Pennsylvania.

Diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a common motor disability that affects an individual’s muscle control, Huber would like to have some extended time off from work to care for himself and go to doctors’ appointments. However, like many Americans, he can’t afford to take unpaid time off to do so, and he needs money coming in to pay for doctors’ appointments that aren’t always covered by insurance.

“I think that with paid family leave, I would be able to continue paying for my out-of-network medical appointments,” Huber said in an interview. “Without my salary from my jobs, that would be difficult. And so that would definitely make a difference and would allow me to contribute to the PA economy while managing my health.”

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which was signed into law in 1993, allows some workers to take time off for caregiving or health reasons — but that time off is unpaid.

Currently, there’s no paid family and medical leave program in Pennsylvania, but state Democratic lawmakers said they believe that could soon change. For years, they have introduced bills that would create a paid family and medical leave program that would allow workers to receive paid time off in order to care for a loved one, such as a newborn or a parent, or to attend to their own health needs.

Despite overwhelming support from the public — about 76% of Pennsylvania residents backed a paid family leave program in 2017, according to a state Department of Labor and Industry report — that legislation never made it out of committee while Republicans controlled the state House and Senate.

With a Democratic majority in the House, however, the latest version of the paid family and medical leave legislation made it out of committee in June, and the full chamber is expected to vote on it. Democratic Sen. Maria Collett and Republican Sen. Devlin Robinson, who is the chair of the Senate Labor and Industry Committee, are the lead sponsors of a soon-to-be-introduced companion bill. Democratic lawmakers are optimistic that the bills will pass both chambers. Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro is expected to sign a final version.

“I think what almost everybody would say is there is a human need he-re for people to be with their families and manage their care in an appropriate way,” Rep. Dan Miller, the lead sponsor of House Bill 181, said in an interview. “They don’t want to miss the big things to which there is no tomorrow for.”

It is this sentiment that lawmakers and advocates say most deeply resonates with people across the ideological spectrum: Almost everyone, regardless of their political party, knows, or will know, what it means to be a caregiver or to deal with their own medical concerns.

“When we talk to our colleagues, this is of course not partisan,” Collett said in an interview. “Everyone has sickness in their family; everyone has personal illness. Everyone has birth and adoption in their families.”

“This is something that we really can move the needle on here in Pennsylvania,” Collett continued. “Pennsylvania can be a real trendsetter here by showing the nation that we value workers.”

Thirteen states and the District of Columbia currently offer paid family leave, and lawmakers in Illinois and Michigan have introduced legislation that would codify such leave.

The proposed Pennsylvania program would, as written, allow the vast majority of Pennsylvania workers to apply for paid time off through a statewide paid leave fund to which they would contribute what Collett said would be an average of less than $7.50 per week.

Employers would not provide direct financial contributions to the paid leave fund but would assist by paying someone else to fill in for the individual taking paid leave, Miller said. While only 56% of employers support paid family leave, according to the 2017 report from the Department of Labor and Industry, lawmakers emphasized that the majority of employers do back it. And despite Democratic lawmakers historically being the ones to push for a paid family leave program, Republican voters in Pennsylvania also support it: Six out of 10 Republican primary voters favor paid family leave, according to an April report from Osage Research in Pittsburgh.

“We know that it would benefit workers, there’s no question about that, but we also know that employers will benefit from this, too,” Collett said. “Large employers that are already able to offer a paid family leave program, they’re able to compete for talented workers and small businesses aren’t. So this is a way of really leveling the playing field here in Pennsylvania for employers big and small.”

Samuel Jones, co-chair of Pennsylvania’s Family Care Coalition, a group of advocates working to pass the paid family and medical leave legislation, noted that four nearby states — Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and New York — all have paid family leave programs.

“This leaves Pennsylvania at a huge disadvantage when people are deciding where they want to work,” said Jones, who is also the eastern regional director of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a national nonprofit advocating for better wages and working conditions for restaurant workers. “Anecdotally we’re hearing stories of people who have determined that they would prefer working in New Jersey or New York rather than Pennsylvania simply because of the paid leave benefits.”

Ultimately, lawmakers and advocates said, paid family and medical leave is about doing what should have been done long ago in Pennsylvania: providing the dignity and grace for people to be human, to take care of children, to tend to  dying parents, to ensure they themselves can continue to live.

“I want to suggest to your readers: Imagine if you were 24 years old and you were paying for some of your own medical appointments,” Huber said. “I would want them to think about, should young people just beginning their lives in college or trade school or the workforce have to choose between contributing to the economy and managing their own health?”