People with disabilities lead the charge for paid leave in Pennsylvania - TAI News
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The dome of the Pennsylvania Capitol Complex in Harrisburg, PA. (Former Gov. Tom Wolf / Flickr)

Josie Badger is well acquainted with hospitals.

Born with a physical disability called congenital myasthenic syndrome, which leaves an individual with weakened muscles, Badger would spend months on end in the hospital as a child.

For her parents, those extended stays meant taking time off from their jobs as teachers. Their paid time off ran out pretty quickly after Badger was born.

“Fortunately, we were in a small town where other teachers donated their paid time off to my mom to be able to spend all of that time in the hospital with me,” said Badger, who grew up and still resides in western Pennsylvania’s Lawrence County.

Spending much of her early years around other children who, like her, needed intensive medical care, Badger quickly learned the struggles families faced while trying to survive in a state and country with no laws requiring employers to provide paid family and medical leave. Her parents were able to make ends meet — but it wasn’t easy, and she often witnessed other families’ deep emotional and financial upheaval as they navigated being unable to take time off from work or having to leave jobs altogether to care for their children.

That, Badger said, should not be the case, and she’s fighting for sweeping change in Pennsylvania.

Now the co-chair of Pennsylvania’s Family Care Coalition, Badger and other disability rights advocates are at the forefront of advocacy for paid family and medical leave legislation. They’re calling on lawmakers to implement what they say would be a life-changing initiative for the approximately 1 in 4 adults living with disabilities in the commonwealth.

State lawmakers are currently weighing legislation to create a universal paid family and medical leave program that would allow full- and part-time workers to apply for paid time off in order to take care of a newborn baby or a sick spouse or child, care for an ailing parent, or attend to their own medical needs. The prime sponsors of the legislation, Democratic Rep. Dan Miller in the House and Democratic Sen. Maria Collett in the Senate, told the Pennsylvania Independent they are pushing for their respective chambers to vote on the bills this session.

“Folks with disabilities feel that this bill is so integrated into the lives and success of employees with disabilities and their families, that their voices have to be at the table and be a part of the charge to make this change,” Badger said of Miller’s legislation, House Bill 181, which passed out of committee last year and is now before the full House. The accompanying Senate bill, sponsored by Collett and Republican Sen. Devlin Robinson, was introduced on March 28 and is now before the chamber’s Labor and Industry Committee.

Currently, not all workers in Pennsylvania have access to paid family and medical leave. Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro in February expanded the state’s paid parental leave program for commonwealth employees, and some companies offer it to their workers, but there’s no state law that requires a paid family and medical leave program be available to everyone. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 allows eligible workers to take unpaid time off for caregiving or health reasons. Those workers must meet a number of requirements to be eligible, including working for a company that employs at least 50 people.

For people with disabilities, that lack of paid time off can be especially disastrous, advocates said. About half of Pennsylvanians with disabilities live in a household that is unable to afford basic needs like housing and food, according to the United Way of Pennsylvania. That economic instability can leave someone with a disability financially devastated if they need to take unpaid time off. The individual may not seek the medical care they need because they’re unable to secure paid time off, potentially creating further health problems.

People with disabilities often face less access to paid leave because they are disproportionately employed in part-time and low-wage work that does not provide the kind of paid time off that higher-wage jobs can offer, according to a 2020 paper produced for the U.S. Department of Labor.

“It can exacerbate health disparities and make your health worse because the stress of medical conditions and mental health needs, those are issues that you just need to take time and take care of sometimes, and trying to balance that and work doesn’t help people,” Jennifer Garman, director of government affairs for Disability Rights Pennsylvania, said in reference to people with disabilities not being able to take paid time off.

Garman also noted that such a program would likely benefit a growing number of people as Pennsylvania’s population ages. The National Partnership for Women and Families notes in a 2023 publication that more than one-quarter of Pennsylvania’s workers are 55 and older, and that number is set to increase in the coming years.

“As people age, you are more likely to become a member of the disability community by virtue of health condition or other health issues,” Garman said. “So, certainly, it’s not just good policy for the disability community; it is beneficial to all Pennsylvanians.”

Jocelyn Frye, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, also emphasized paid leave being especially crucial for individuals with disabilities and noted the growing number of people with disabilities due to long COVID.

“Increasingly, we are seeing a rising number of people with disabilities,” Frye said. “If you look at folks who have things like long COVID and other sorts of conditions that fall under the protections of our disability system, at the same time, they need the ability to have support, to be able to take off time to deal with those sorts of ongoing issues.”

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The Pennsylvania Independent is a project of American Independent Media, a 501(c)(4) organization whose mission is to use journalism to educate the public, giving them the information they need about local and federal issues.