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Mainers and Businesses Divided on Paid Family Leave

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  In President Trump's State of the Union speech Tuesday night, he emphasized the need to invest in the workforce:

"....and let's support working families by supporting paid family leave," the president said.

Paid maternity leave is an idea that's been around for decades, but currently only a third of employers offer the benefit. Proposals at the national and state level would expand access to paid leave, but opponents say a mandate would be bad for businesses.

When Kathleen Fleury first took a job at Down East magazine in 2007, the company offered one week of paid parental leave. Fleury pushed for more, and by the time she had her second child, Down East offered three weeks. But even after extending that leave with sick and vacation days, she said she returned to work exhausted and stressed.

"Even in a great situation, and I consider myself to have a great situation,” said Fleury. “I have a supportive partner, I have a job that I love that pays well and I love going into. Even in that scenario, I was like, a crying mess at seven weeks."

Still, Fleury was in a better situation than most working mothers in the United States. Federal law only requires employers to provide 12 weeks of unpaid time off for most workers.

Eliza Townsend of the Maine Women's Lobby said the United States has a long way to go to catch up with the rest of the world.

"The United States and Papua New Guinea are the only two countries that offer no form of paid leave whatsoever," said Townsend. Townsend further said the arrival of a new baby or a serious medical issue shouldn't mean you have to go without a paycheck.

A proposed bill before the Maine legislature would create a program that covers eight weeks of both parental and medical paid leave at two-thirds the rate of pay. Townsend said that just like unemployment or social security benefits, the program would be funded through a payroll tax.

“Into which each worker pays a small amount, really pennies out of your paycheck, to create a system from which you can draw in the event of a major life event,” said Townsend.

The proposal would exempt businesses with 15 or fewer employees. But opponents object to a mandate that could increase administrative costs for thousands of employers.

We think that employers should get to decide, period,” said David Clough, Maine state director of the National Federation of Independent Business.

Cost is also a concern for the Maine State Chamber of Commerce. Spokesman Peter Gore said it's not clear how much it would take to fund the program and to ensure that it remains solvent.

"We think it would be wise if the state is contemplating moving forward with a new state agency that would have charge of hundreds of millions of dollars, to undertake an actuarial study," Gore said.

The Chamber is not taking a position on the bill. But ideally, Gore said, paid leave policy would be enacted at the federal level. There is a proposal in Congress to create a social insurance system that would provide 12 weeks paid family leave. It's cosponsored by Independent Senator Angus King, and backed by Democrats. But another proposal also has the support of conservative policy experts.

"We would like, at the federal level, for there to be an eight week paid parental leave policy,” said AparnaMathur of the American Enterprise Institute. The organization partnered with the Brookings Institution to release a recommendation last summer. Like the Maine proposal, funding would come through a payroll tax.

"We also said that it should come with job protection,” said Mathur. “So what we see at the state level in places like California, because the paid leave policy doesn't come with job protection, a lot of low wage workers are left out of the policy. They're rushing back to work as soon as possible.”

Mathur said the lack of family-friendly policies like paid parental leave is part of the reason the number of women who work in the United States has stalled in recent years.

But some businesses are embracing paid leave policies on their own. LL Bean, one of the largest employers in Maine, will provide both mothers and fathers up to six weeks of paid parental leave starting in February. Portland-based Avesta Housing also added a paid parental leave benefit this year: eight weeks for birth mothers and four weeks for other parents.

"We really wanted to respond to what today's workforce wants and needs. It certainly will help us both, we think, retain and attract good employees," said Avesta president Dana Totman.

Kathleen Fleury, who has risen to become editor-in-chief of Down East magazine, credits her company's decision to adopt family-friendly policies for allowing her to advance her career and have a family.

"I'm so grateful because I love my job,” said Fleury. “I love our magazine, I love our company. I also love being a mom."

Fleury just had her third child. This time, company benefits give her 12 weeks of paid leave.


This story was originally published Jan. 31, 2018 at 5:25 p.m. ET.