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Michigan doesn't require companies to offer paid parental leave. Should it?

Erin Buitendorp and Paul Wozniak tending to their 2-year-old son
Posted at 2:46 PM, Apr 11, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-12 00:24:06-04

LANSING, Mich. — Michigan started offering paid parental leave to state workers in the fall of 2020. They get up to 12 weeks at full pay after the birth or adoption of a child.

But most Michiganders don't.

Advocates say paid family leave gives children a healthy start, reduces financial strain and keeps parents in the workforce.

"Paid parental leave is critically important to families as they are welcoming a new child. We know that right now in this country, about one in five women are back at work within two weeks after having given birth because they don't have access to paid family and medical leave," said Ruth Martin Chief Workplace Justice Officer and Senior Vice President at MomsRising. "That means you may have barely recovered from a C section, or just the trauma of having a baby, which is a wonderful thing. It takes a lot out of you. And can be harmful to a women health."

But most states don't require employers to offer paid parental leave including Michigan.

"A number of states have passed paid family medical leave laws at the state level, Washington State, California and New York, Rhode Island, to name a few Colorado just passed some Massachusetts, and a few more as well," Martin says.

Erin Buitendorp and her husband, Paul Wozniak, live in Lansing and have a 2-year-old son. In 2019, Erin had been working for the city of Lansing for less than a yea,r which wasn't long enough to qualify for leave through the Federal Family and Medical Leave Act.

Instead, she had to use sick time, vacation time and request unpaid absences.

"I mean, it was kind of scary. You're used to bi-weekly or a monthly paycheck or whatever," Buitendorp said.

She says they had her husband's income to fall back on as well as donated paid leave from those at work but that was only half their income.

"So you know, when you have a mortgage and your Verizon bill, and your board, water and light bill, and yeah, all the things and then plus, no one really talks about the expenses of kids until the kid is here," Buitendorp said.

Her husband says although it was stressful they were privileged to be able to make it work.

"Our thing was kind of like, if we're feeling like we're struggling with all of the benefits and privileges that we have, I can only imagine for anybody that didn't have a job that was flexible with their work time or didn't have family medical leave or something like that," Wozniak said.

There is no national law requiring any sort of paid parental leave in the United States.

"A group of us a couple of years ago on a bipartisan basis, approved, paid 12 weeks of leave for all of our military and all of our federal government employees for reasons of childbirth or adoption or a sick family member," said U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin.

It was groundbreaking but it doesn't apply to everyone.

"There are proposals to extend that 12 weeks across the country and make it a requirement for most businesses. But right now, that's just we don't have that," Slotkin said.

And compared to other countries the U.S is lacking big time. For example, in Sweden, a single parent can get 480 days of paid parental leave after the birth or adoption of a child. And a couple can get 480 days as a whole, so 240 days each.

"Most other countries in the entire world have some form of at least paid parental leave, many others also have your own medical leave or other caretaking leave. And the United States is an outlier in the entire world," Martin said.

Lindsay Admon is an assistant professor at the University of Michigan Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and a researcher on maternal health.

She says paid parental leave policies are "essential for ensuring optimal health for moms and their children in that first year of life."

She also believes longer parental or maternity leave would cover the time period in which at least 40 perent of maternal deaths occur.

"Paid parental leave policies have shown many benefits. One of them is improved rates of attendance at postpartum visits and reducing racial and ethnic disparities in access to postpartum care. So I think not only would paid parental leave be good for everybody giving birth, but it has the potential to reduce racial inequities is how health care's postpartum health care is delivered," Admon said.

State Rep. Stephanie Young, D-Detroit, introduced House Bill 5350 in September.

"My bill is about parental leave, making certain that people don't have to worry about losing their job in order to do what should be a given and form that bond with your child, both with newly born children, babies, as well as adopted children. That's an important time," Young said. "It was a nine-bill package all about parental leave and caring for our families. And it's currently sitting in committee."

She says it has yet to receive a hearing but is hopeful that it will.

"I just believe that when you're working in an environment where sometimes it can feel like business takes precedence over human capital, then that's what's slowing down this process because you are going to be looking at missing out on a portion of your workforce during this time, which could potentially lead to less revenue for the business," she said. "But how do you weigh that against healthy workers."

So why doesn't Michigan have it?

"Year after year, there have been bills in Michigan's legislature with a proposal to enact a paid leave system. There's even a ballot proposal. But no progress has been made in our law. And one of if not the major roadblocks to passing a paid leaves system for our state has been business community interest groups," said Bobby Dorigo Jones, vice president of Michigan's Children, a nonprofit that advocates for public policies that support children.

He says each time business interest groups have basically refused to engage in negotiations around the hard details of a proposal.

"How much time off? How is it accrued and earned? And who pays really?" Jones said. "The question of who pays is very political and very costly for a lot of different people. And really no progress will be made until people across the state demand that folks come to the table and negotiate around the plan that fairly rewards time off for workers who've earned it. And that's paid for equitably based on who has resources and who can afford it."

But Wendy Block, the vice president of business advocacy and member engagement with the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, says a government mandate might not be the right move.

"There already are some laws in place, dealing with this, like we talked about the Michigan Paid Medical Leave Act. There is the Federal Family Medical Leave Act as well. There are insurance policies in place. And so you know, at this point, we do not support moving to more government mandates in this regard," Block said.

But FMLA isn't always paid leave and Michigan's Paid Medical Leave Act excludes a lot of workers and only requires companies with 50 or more employees to provide 40 hours of paid medical leave per year.

"We believe these decisions about what paid time off looks like should be made In the workplace between employers and employees and a union if there is one, but really this kind of government, one size fits all approach really may not end up benefiting all workers and meet them where they are," Block said.

She says there are different ways the government can get creative that is shy of a mandate.

"Trying to incentivize the sorts of programs through tax credits and otherwise, so an employer can talk to their employees and say, 'Hey, you know, this tax credit is out there, a tax incentive is out there. Should we think about doing this? Is this something that you would value,'" Block said.

But advocates say that what some states have right now proves that paid parental leave is effective and that those policies could be a road map for Michigan.

"Those paid leave laws that exist are incredibly important pieces of information and data that show that these policies do work. And that we should be able to do this at the national level by establishing just a minimum floor," Martin said.

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