Paid Family and Medical Leave is More Essential Now Than Ever

This commentary is by Sascha Mayer, Co-founder, Chairperson, Chief Brand Officer at Mamava and Board Member of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility 

As a women-owned, Certified B-Corporation that designs free-standing lactation suites for parents to pump or nurse in private, our business model was largely informed by our personal experiences and challenges as working moms – and, by extension, our families.

Since our founding back in 2013, Mamava has strived to create a workplace that not only celebrates the gifts our employees bring to the company but also ensures that they feel safe and supported both inside and outside of the office – that’s why we provide paid family and medical leave (PFML) to our employees and are proud to be strong advocates for a universal, mandatory paid family and medical leave program here in Vermont.

Over the years, PFML has proven to be an invaluable staff recruitment and retention tool for our business. Within less than a year and half of hiring our first full-time employee, we had two pregnant moms (one third of our full-time work force at the time). Nearly a decade later, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, PFML proved to be an essential resource for all our staff – shouldering a heavy lift we could not have anticipated and ensuring that no one was forced to choose between their families, their health, and their livelihoods.

While many positives arise from offering PFML, it is costly for small businesses to offer this robust benefit. It is not a commitment that can be taken on lightly – or at all – without the right support. That’s why it is so important that our legislature moves swiftly to pass a universal, mandatory program commensurate with working Vermonters’ needs and our state’s growing cost of living. Creating a statewide PMFL insurance program will bridge the affordability gap that many employers can’t overcome alone and provide all employees access to leave when they need it – whether they’re taking time to heal, care for a family member, or welcome a new one.

Publicly funded PFML opponents will tell you that such programs are too costly and not worth the investment. Those opponents are either uninformed, misinformed, or willfully disregarding the numbers – and the proven successes. Data from other states – 11 and counting – that have implemented their own universal PFML programs paint a compelling picture. Viewed alongside Vermont-specific data, a vision of the potential here in the Green Mountain State becomes clear.

PFML means tackling gender inequities and bringing more women into the workforce. Here in Vermont, there is a 6% gap in labor force participation between women and men as women are more likely to take time off to care for a family member. On the national scale, if women participated in the U.S. labor force at said rate, the economy would see roughly $650 billion in additional economic activity every year.

Vermont has an aging population and workers need resources to be able to care for themselves and other aging Vermonters. Right now, more than one in four Vermont workers are 55 and older and within the next 20 years, the portion of Vermont’s population age 65 and older is expected to grow by more than a quarter. Family caregivers are already spending, on average, a quarter (26%) of their income on caregiving activities, however a universal paid leave program would add about 13,000 family caregivers to Vermont’s workforce by 2030 – a telling figure given Vermont’s current workforce shortage.

PMFL bolsters household buying power and allows more Vermonters to participate in the workforce. In January 2022 alone, nearly 4,500 Vermonters were not working because they were sick with or caring for someone with COVID-19, and more than 10,500 due to another illness or disability. This represents a massive economic hit when you consider the average Vermonter who takes four weeks of unpaid leave loses more than $3,300 in income. Since 2020, Vermont workers who were infected with COVID-19 have lost approximately $35.2 million in wages due to a lack of or insufficient paid leave.

PMFL improves worker retention, saving employers money through reduced turnover costs. As any business leader will tell you, replacing workers is an expensive endeavor, as turnover costs are estimated to average one-fifth of an employee’s annual salary. That said, new moms who take paid leave are more likely than those who do not to be back to work again 9-to-12 months after childbirth, and first-time mothers who take paid leave are more likely than those who take unpaid leave or no leave to return to the same employer.

We’ve seen this play out in one of our country’s flagship paid leave programs in California, where 83% of workers holding “lower-quality” jobs who used the state’s paid leave program returned to their previous employer – a 10-point improvement compared to those who did not use the program. This all came at little to no cost to local businesses. In fact, most businesses in California (87%) saw no increased costs as a result of the paid leave program and 9% reported that the program had created cost savings for their enterprises through reduced employee turnover and/or reducing the costs of their own benefits.

PMFL increases worker productivity, loyalty, and morale. It’s no secret that providing employee-first programs like paid leave supports staff retention and recruitment and increases overall worker productivity and the reason is simple – if you invest in your employees, they’ll invest in you. Almost 90% of businesses surveyed about the impacts of the California paid leave program indicated that the program had either a positive effect on productivity or no noticeable effect and nearly all employers (99%) indicated that the state’s paid leave program had either a positive or neutral effect on employee morale. Looking further east, New Jersey employers reported that their state’s paid leave program helped decrease stress among workers and improve morale for those who took leave.

COVID-19 upended our consideration of the term “essential.” Our shifted perspective and lived experience demanded it. While universal, mandatory PFML may have been deemed “important” or “worthwhile” in the recent past, it is undeniably essential now. The public health crises and workforce shortages bearing down on our brave little state warrant bold action from decision makers in Montpelier – action that thoroughly codifies family wellbeing.

Let’s work together to level the economic playing field, keep more Vermonters in state, attract more families to move here, and ensure that all workers and all businesses have the financial resiliency to put health, safety, and family first. Let’s pass the Universal Paid Family and Medical Leave bill!