When Jackie Swain’s infant daughter, Emersyn, was diagnosed with a rare heart disease in 2018, the Montgomery County resident took a sobering look at the options before her.
Swain could hire someone to care for Emersyn while she and her husband worked. Or she could quit her job as a cake decorator, which paid an hourly wage, and be with her daughter full-time.
Swain and her husband, Chris Sheeder, took the second option, according to Sen. Maria Collett, D-Montgomery, who represents the couple in the state Senate. Sheeder worked as many hours as he could at his landscaping job to pay for Emersyn’s medical care.
Emersyn died when she was just seven months old. On Tuesday, Collett said the Swains’ brief time with their daughter was made even more anguishing by the difficult choices they had to make to pay for her care.
Collett says a bill she’s sponsoring with Sen. Dan Laughlin, R-Erie, that calls for universal paid family leave for Pennsylvanians, would have prevented it.
The legislation would make small deductions from workers’ paychecks to fund an insurance program, run by the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, which would pay out benefits to public and private-sector employees who take medical leave from work.
Eligible workers could earn up to 90 percent of their income for up to 20 weeks while they recover from an illness, care for a new child, or nurse a sick family member.
Reps. Wendi Thomas, R-Bucks, and Dan Miller, D-Allegheny, are sponsoring a companion bill in the House.
Despite its bipartisan support, the legislation faces an uphill battle in both Republican-controlled chambers. Republicans say the mandatory deductions from workers’ paychecks constitute a new tax that would hurt small businesses and families.
Even so, some Republicans think the time is right to look at universal family leave for Pennsylvania, a state where senior citizens are growing in rank and where young adults shoulder some of the country’s largest student loan debts.
The Senate Labor and Industry held a two-hour public hearing on the bill on Tuesday, a step signifying there’s at least some will to seriously consider the proposal.
“A lot of people understand you shouldn’t have to lose your job, your home, everything, because of an illness,” the committee’s chairwoman, Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington, said. “The question is … is this bill the way to do it?”
State level solutions
Thousands of Pennsylvanians who work for the federal government gained access to a paid family leave program when Congress approved a bill in December offering 12 weeks of paid parental leave to federal employees.
But across the Commonwealth, less than half of Pennsylvanians qualify for federal protections that let them take unpaid leave for a medical emergency. Research shows many employees don’t take unpaid leave because they can’t afford it.
Nationwide, only 17 percent of civilian workers have access to paid family leave programs, the U.S. Department of Labor says.
In the absence of federally mandated paid family leave, more states are creating their own programs for workers. State-run insurance funds such as the one being proposed in Pennsylvania are already in six states across the country, including neighboring New York and New Jersey.
Small business owners such as Rich Garland, who owns an insurance firm in Bethlehem, Lehigh County, say state-supported programs can help them retain employees, saving money on training and recruitment.
“Both the business owner and the employee pay heavily” for medical leave, Garland told the Labor and Industry committee Tuesday. “I think you have an opportunity to help.”
But not everyone agrees that the government should administer family leave programs.
Sam Marshall, President and CEO of the Pennsylvania Insurance Federation, told lawmakers Tuesday that they should “focus on building the private market for paid family and medical leave.”
That may mean offering tax incentives to private employers that offer leave policies, Marshall said, or allowing the insurance industry to craft private insurance programs for medical leave.
The National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks statehouse policy trends across the United States, says four states have proposed tax credits for employers who let workers take paid family leave. None of them have become law.
Rebecca Oyler, legislative director of the National Federation of Independent Business in Pennsylvania, said the employers she represents roundly oppose the state-run medical leave proposal.
She said employers should have the flexibility to offer benefits tailored to their workplaces and employees. She also said some workers may not want to pay into the insurance fund, preferring to “keep their cash” instead.
The proposals in Pennsylvania would deduct earnings from workers’ wages at a rate of .588 cents on the dollar.
For a household earning Pennsylvania’s median annual income of $60,000, that works out to roughly $352 per year, or $13.56 from each biweekly paycheck.
Laughlin told the Capital-Star Tuesday leaders in his Republican caucus are “lukewarm” on the bill since it would take money from workers.
But the Erie County lawmaker, whose reelection campaign this year is drawing national attention from Democratic groups that want to flip his seat, said he doesn’t view the mandatory deductions as a tax.
He sees them as an investment in a worker’s future, since most people will, at some point, need to take time off work for a medical event.
“People buy fire insurance on their homes, and almost nobody ever needs that,” Laughlin said. “This is something nearly every worker will need at some point in their life, because very few of us lead these charmed lives where nothing goes wrong.”