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Seeking paid family and medical leave

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Federal law already protects the jobs of people who are having a child, taking care of an ill parent or themselves after a catastrophic injury. But they don’t get paid. Now, Maryland lawmakers are pushing a bill to create an insurance fund that would pay someone taking family and medical leave a portion of their salary.

The bill creates a state-run fund that employers and employees would contribute to—a small amount from each paycheck—and workers who need family and medical leave could submit a claim and draw a portion of their weekly salary.

It would cover people like Heidi Lewis, who was pregnant with her second child when she told her employer, a large independent bookstore in Washington, DC, that the 10 days paid parental leave they were offering wasn’t viable.

“I knew at 10 days I would be in no shape to return to work after having had a child before,” she recounted. “I knew at 10 days, what it looks like for a new mother. And I can tell you that's not a person you want sitting at a desk.”

Her boss agreed and extended the leave to 10 weeks at partial pay. The District of Columbia created a similar policy shortly afterward. Now, Lewis, who lives in Silver Spring, says Maryland should do the same. She calls it a productivity issue, asking employers what kind of employee they want.

“Do you want a well-rested, centered, balanced employee, the one that you hired,” she wondered. “Or do you want one who was exhausted, riddled with pain from a difficult delivery or childbirth up at all hours of the day nursing, exhausted?”

Antonio Hayes, the Baltimore Democrat sponsoring the Senate bill and an expectant father, says he already has that type of leave, but most Marylanders don’t, “especially those who are some of the more entry level or are lower wage earners don't have that type of leave available to them.”

That means parents often have to return to work sooner than they would like in order to get paid.

“And, you know, not having time to spend with a newborn child in the early stages creates other problems,” he said.

Andrew Griffin, the Maryland Chamber of Commerce’s vice president for government affairs, worried about the costs to small businesses and nonprofits and that the state, rather than employers, controls how the leave is taken.

“For an employer to be able to have zero control over when their employees are taking leave at all, is a pretty difficult pill to swallow, frankly,” he said.

In addition, he said, employers worry that the program could be abused.

“This would be the only leave program passed, either at the state level or at the federal level in which the employer has no way of reporting fraud and abuse and all. That's not allowed for in this law.”

Jayson Williams, who runs Mayson Dixon Companies, a Baltimore based construction, consulting and property management firm, established a program in his company after an employee told him she was pregnant and wanted to be able to take off 12 weeks after the birth to take care of her child.

“I thought the right thing to do was create a policy in my business where I gave her part of her salary, just so I knew that she would come back to me, and she was very thankful for that,” he said. “And I just made the decision by myself to do it.”

He says the policy has helped him retain employees and in the long run saved money.

“Think about how much money you spend to recruit someone to onboard them and get them into your company where they become a functioning part of your company and they are helping increase your bottom line,” he said. “Losing an employee, that to me, is more expensive than retaining one.”

The Family and Medical Leave Insurance bill is to be heard in a Senate committee Thursday. A hearing on the House version is scheduled next week.

Joel McCord is a trumpet player who learned early in life that that’s no way to make a living.