Lawmakers, advocates gather to fight for paid leave in Virginia

By Keya Vakil

September 9, 2019

The lack of paid family and medical leave laws in Virginia were the focus of a roundtable discussion in Richmond Friday, held with the aim of passing legislation to give additional rights to employees in the Commonwealth.

Hosted by the Campaign for a Family Friendly Economy Virginia, the conversation featured several lawmakers, including state Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) and Del. Debra Rodman (D-Henrico), and representatives from The Commonwealth Institute, New Virginia Majority, and the National Domestic Workers Alliance, as well as union members and small business owners. 

Participants spoke about the need to pass paid family and medical leave, so that families aren’t forced to choose between their jobs or caring for newborns or sick loved ones.

“For months now, we’ve been hearing from families across Virginia about how important paid family and medical leave is to them, and what a game-changer this policy would be in their lives,” said Tara Gibson, Executive Director of the Campaign for a Family Friendly Economy Virginia.

Democrats tried to pass paid leave policies earlier this year when Sen. Jennifer Boysko (D-Herndon) and Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy (D-Prince William) introduced legislation that would have required Virginia to establish a paid family and medical leave program, but the Republican-led General Assembly shelved both bills.

Boysko and Carroll Foy’s bills would provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave benefits, covering 70% of a workers’ wages, but not to exceed $850 per week, a rate that would be adjusted each year based on changes in the Consumer Price Index. The program, which would be funded via employer and employee contributions to a family and medical leave insurance fund, would exempt employers with 25 or fewer employees from paying for the program, though they could decide to participate voluntarily. 

Several lawmakers who attended the roundtable expressed support for their colleagues’ bills.

“Everybody is going to face a point when they have to take care of themselves or a family member and they shouldn’t have to choose between doing that and doing their job,” said Sen. McClellan.

McClellan said the issue was personal for her, as she lost her father to cancer and is currently dealing with how to care for her elderly mother.

Del. Debra Rodman (D-Henrico), who is running against state Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico) in the 12th Senate District, echoed McClellan’s sentiment. 

“I have experienced when you are trying to take care of a family member, sick children or aging parents…it impacted my job and my spouse’s job,” Rodman said. More importantly, Rodman added, her constituents support the idea, as do business owners.

The United States is the only country in the developed world that doesn’t guarantee paid family leave for working men and women. In fact, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) only requires employers with 50 or more employees to allow a new parent up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave after the birth of a child. This means that only those parents that can afford to lose out on 12 weeks of pay can take time off.

Advocates for paid leave have increasingly focused on rectifying the issue by pushing for legislation at the state level, successfully passing bills in several states, including Connecticut and Oregon in 2019.

In Virginia, the state’s lack of paid leave laws is among the reasons Oxfam recently ranked the Commonwealth as the worst state in the country for workers. Currently, only 44.7% of working adults are estimated to be eligible for and able to afford to take unpaid leave, according to the Campaign for a Family Friendly Economy Virginia.

The issue disproportionately affects people of color; only 50% of Latinx workers and 62.6% of black workers have access to paid time off, compared to more than 66% of white workers, according to the Bureau for Labor Statistics.

Women also bear the brunt of the lack of paid leave policies, as 79% of black mothers, 48% of white mothers and 48% of Latina mothers in Virginia are the key breadwinners in their families, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families. These women are most often the ones forced to choose between job and family; a choice they often literally cannot afford, according to paid leave advocates.

“Paid family and medical leave would really help them [women] out as caretakers of their family. In their roles as key or primary caretakers, they really can’t afford to take leave, unless it is paid. It’s really critical for communities of color and women of color, in particular to get state-based paid family and medical leave,” said Freddy Mejia of the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, a non-profit public policy organization. 

Beyond the benefits for workers, roundtable attendees also highlighted the positive results of paid leave policies for businesses.

“It helps businesses be more competitive if they can retain their employees and not have to constantly go through high-turnover – it just makes sense,” Sen. McLellan said.

Del. Rodman agreed. “We need to understand that the future of our commonwealth depends on creating good work environments. It’s good for the economy. It’s good for our families. It’s good for Virginia,” she said.

The Campaign for a Family Friendly Economy Virginia also held another roundtable on the issue in Roanoke, and Tara Gibson, Executive Director of the organization, is cautiously optimistic about what the future holds for paid leave in Virginia. 

“I’m hopeful that lawmakers will take these stories to heart and work with us to pass a comprehensive paid family and medical leave bill this year,” Gibson said.

For Boysko and Carroll Foy’s bills to get serious consideration, though, it’s likely that Democrats will need to win control of the General Assembly. 

Senate hopeful Rodman seemed to agree on Friday, adding: “We need to flip some seats blue.”

  • Keya Vakil

    Keya Vakil is the deputy political editor at COURIER. He previously worked as a researcher in the film industry and dabbled in the political world.

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