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The barriers to paid family leave in Pennsylvania

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This week: Paid family and medical leave bills, where infants should sit on flights, and the governor’s 10-year plan for older Pennsylvanians.

a woman holding a baby in her arms at a desk

Statewide Standard

Alana Griffin was employed and on maternity leave when she and her infant son moved into a Tampa, Florida, women’s shelter in 2012.

The Pittsburgh native, who had recently left her husband, thought her company's parental leave program would help her get a handle on single motherhood. But she learned a month before giving birth that she didn’t qualify because she’d worked there less than a year.

To maintain her income, Griffin planned to return to the office soon after having her son. But under her doctor’s orders, Griffin, who’d had a cesarean section, ended up staying out of work for nine weeks. During that time she ran out of money despite being a white-collar employee.

“Like, it was almost like a punishment” for having a baby, Griffin, who now lives in McKeesport, said of the ordeal, adding that it took roughly two years for her to fully heal.

If Florida had had a statewide paid family leave program, Griffin argues a decade later, she could have kept her home. That experience is partly why she now volunteers with the advocacy group MomsRising, which supports a Pennsylvania bill that would provide up to 20 weeks of paid leave for parents or people recovering from an illness, surgery, or injury.

The legislation, which has backers from both major parties, would create a minimum paid leave floor for Pennsylvania, which lacks a statewide standard. Currently, different companies, counties, and cities in the commonwealth set their own policies, and decide the circumstances under which people are eligible. Whether someone can take paid time off to care for, say, a sick child or relative, depends on where they live and work.

Supporters say the legislation would give Pennsylvanians economic security after the birth or adoption of a child, and during periods of illness and crisis. But some business owners and lawmakers argue it will create financial burdens for employers.

The proposed paid leave program would not replace a worker’s full salary. The amount would be determined by a formula involving the state's average weekly wage.

The state Senate version of the measure would fund the program through payroll contributions amounting to no more than 1% of a person's income. The state House version, meanwhile, proposes splitting funding for the program between employers and employees.

Historically, family leave has been a bailiwick of Democrats and progressives. But state Sen. Devlin Robinson (R., Allegheny) frames it as an economic issue, and one he understands personally following his father dying from a rare form of prostate cancer.

"Everyone is going to have to care for a sick parent, or care for a spouse, or welcome the birth of a child, or an adoption," explained Robinson, who chairs the state Senate’s Labor and Industry Committee and is his chamber’s prime sponsor of the bill.

Robinson's flexible work schedule allowed him to help care for his father, but many Pennsylvanians aren't so lucky, he noted. The only option many people have when dealing with an illness or family crisis is the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. The 1993 law protects people from getting fired during a leave of absence of up to 12 weeks, but does not mandate workers receive pay.

Studies of leave policies have found pay can make a difference for the health and well-being of workers and their dependents, but research on the financial benefits is limited.

Yulya Truskinovsky, an economist at Wayne State University, told Spotlight PA that part of the reason for the scant data is that state-level paid leave programs are relatively new, so it’s unclear what amount of time off and replaced wages works best.

But, she added, "Just because we don't have a lot of evidence doesn't mean that there aren't effects."

One study out of California — the first state to establish paid family leave in 2004 — showed a slightly lower rate of nursing home admissions when paid leave was available for caretakers. Researchers have also found parental leave improves maternal and infant health outcomes, which is why groups such as the Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Philadelphia-based Maternity Care Coalition support the bill.

Business interests are more skeptical.

The PA Chamber of Business and Industry called the legislation a one-size-fits-all solution. Alex Halper, the chamber's senior vice president of government affairs, said employers structure their benefit packages to account for their unique staffing needs.

"The proposal also really gives almost exclusive authority to the Department of Labor and Industry to manage requests," said Halper. "You're really almost keeping employers almost entirely out of the equation."

Warren Hudak, the vice chair of the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, echoed that point. Hudak, who owns an accounting firm in Camp Hill, said being forced to keep someone's job open for an extended period would be disruptive, especially during tax season.

"No temp would be able to walk in and replace your tax admin. No temp would be able to come in and replace a key employee's functions," he said, adding that many of his employees telecommute, which gives them flexibility when dealing with illness and caregiving.

Hudak argued many of the issues the legislation purports to tackle are already addressed through the unemployment system: Through a “voluntary quit,” Pennsylvanians can receive benefits if they leave their job due to personal circumstances, including health reasons.

Pittsburgh-based attorney Christine Elzer said if someone’s health issue qualifies them for a voluntary quit, it’s usually because they can no longer do a specific type of work but are still able to do some sort of job. She doubts that people in situations like Alana Griffin’s would be able to claim such a benefit.

“It’s important to combat the talking point that you can get unemployment when you’re pregnant or on maternity leave, because it’s almost never true,” said Elzer, who is a board member of National Employment Lawyers Association.

Data from the U.S. Department of Labor show that in 2023, 40% of Pennsylvania's 55,113 voluntary quit claims were approved. The Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry reports there were 588,565 unemployment claims last year.

Hudak said he thinks the bill would incentivize people to exit the workforce.

But the opposite might be true, said Melanie Zaber, a labor economist at RAND, a nonprofit policy think tank. She pointed to data from California that suggest paid leave helps more women remain employed after having a child.

"You're still maintaining a commitment to that employer, that's sort of part of what these leave policies are. As opposed to quitting your job where then you're starting from scratch," said Zaber. "I would argue that that's more of a career disruption."

Jeff Betten, the owner-operator of Pittsburgh-based manufacturer Hellbender Vinyl, supports the paid leave bill. He says the legislation would make his company’s family leave policy more affordable, which would help him retain workers.

"I would rather give someone three months off … and have them come back with the wealth of institutional knowledge they come with, than to let them go," said Betten.

Sarah Boden for Spotlight PA

Reader Resources

a man in a suit standing at a podium speaking into a microphone


‘AGING OUR WAY’: “In an effort to meet the needs of Pennsylvania’s growing population of older citizens, Gov. Josh Shapiro on Friday unveiled his administration’s ‘Aging Our Way, PA’ 10-year strategic plan,” the Capital-Star reports. Full story →

Big Stories

SEAT SELECTION: “The Federal Aviation Administration says the safest way for children under 2 to fly is in their own plane seat while secured in an FAA-certified ‘child-restraint system,’” The Cut reports. Full story (paywall) →

YOUTH CAREGIVERS: “An estimated 5.4 million children under 18 provided care to parents, grandparents or siblings with chronic medical conditions or functional decline in 2019,” USA Today reports. Full story →

The Upside

50TH ANNIVERSARY: Pennsylvania’s Department of Health recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of WIC, the supplemental nutrition program that research has shown leads to healthier births and better postpartum experiences for women. Full story →

‘EVERYDAY HERO’: Pain management doctor Vwaire Orhurhu recently received an Everyday Hero Award from UPMC. The award aims to highlight physicians who “go above and beyond in their daily practice to provide exceptional care.” Full story →

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