Feb. 5 marked the 26th anniversary of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which guarantees workers access to job-protected unpaid time off to welcome a new child, care for a family member or tend to one’s own illness or injury. It was also my older daughter’s 4th birthday. (How did that happen?!)
I can vouch that very few Vermonters have access to parental leave or personal medical leave through their employers. When my older daughter was born, I was in the process of launching my own business. Though the work I do supports leaders and companies to create a thriving culture, there was no support for me to take time off to be with my new baby. Though I had a beautiful home-birth delivery, my husband’s job at a local Vermont nonprofit could not support him for a decent leave to be at home with us. He was granted unpaid leave of up to four weeks. We only survived because of the cheap rent on the old farmhouse we lived in, and because of the kindness of friends and family.
When our second daughter was born nearly two years ago, I again had to take time off from my business without support, and my husband, working for another local nonprofit, again suffered from lack of a good parental-leave package. Not only was it more challenging this time because we suddenly had two children, but my husband wound up only being able to afford three weeks off, and he actually had to work throughout his time at home with our young family. Why did we have to go through this painful squeeze?
Nearly every working Vermonter at some point will need to take time away from their job to care for or bond with a new child or to deal with a serious personal or family illness. While many workers nationally and in Vermont are eligible for unpaid leave through the FMLA and/or the Vermont Parental and Family Leave Act (PFLA), it remains inaccessible for those who cannot afford to take the time off unpaid, and not everyone (myself included) knows how to access those resources.
Vermont is proud of being a small-business state. I certainly was excited to start my small business here, and felt strongly enough about it that I pursued it at the same time as starting my family. But this comes with so many challenges, including how we think about the nature of employment, the need for a paid family-leave program, and the next step — good, solid child care. We need to address these challenges with smart policies that reflect the reality of the business landscape in Vermont and help our small-business community, and our families, thrive.
A statewide paid family-leave program would eliminate this dilemma for small businesses across the state and provide access to all working Vermonters. We Vermont business owners, and Vermonters generally, share the same goals: We want to grow our local economy, keep Vermonters here, attract more families to move and stay here, and keep our economy, families and communities healthy.
So, check this out: the Legislature is currently considering a statewide family- and medical-leave insurance program that would allow Vermonters up to 12 weeks of paid leave to take time to bond with or care for a newborn, recover, or care for a family member suffering from a serious long-term illness or injury.
The creation of a universal, and this is key — portable — statewide family- and medical-leave benefit would help level the playing field for small businesses and entrepreneurs as we start and grow our businesses, and allow us to better compete for top talent. It would not only provide long-term financial stability for Vermont’s working families, but also support employers who are struggling with a workforce shortage, costs with hiring and training new employees, and competition between businesses that can afford to offer a benefit and those that cannot.
This program would recognize Vermont as a state that prioritizes small businesses and families with policies that support the business community, a growing economy, a strong workforce, and healthy families. We all have a stake in ensuring that our next generation has a bright future. This is a policy that points toward those common goals, and it’s a support for businesses as much as it is for their employees. This policy almost makes me wish I could rewind time and have my babies all over again, but this time with supported family time off for both my husband and myself.
Sarah Lipton is a Calais resident.