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July 20, 2024 1:00 pm

Democratic lawmakers renew their pitch for a paid leave program in Wisconsin


by Erik Gunn, Wisconsin Examiner
February 15, 2024

With the regular session of the state Legislature on track to end before April, Democratic lawmakers rolled out a draft bill to renew their quest for a paid family leave program in Wisconsin.

Advocates nodded to the Valentine’s Day unveiling of the bill, and its lead Senate author said the announcement was also aimed at reminding lawmakers and their staffs that while, as state employees, they have paid family and medical leave, a large segment of Wisconsin workers are left without it.

“It’s important to be doing this now because we need to keep this in the forefront of everybody’s mind that some of the privileges and luxuries that we have in this building, that’s afforded to us every day, regular Wisconsinites don’t have,” said LaTonya Johnson after a press conference in the Capitol Assembly parlor to promote the legislation. “And it’s important for us to continue to fight for that.”

At the press conference, Johnson recalled her years as a child care provider. She would frequently see “mothers dropping their kids off at day care, knowing that they’re sick, but they needed that day’s work to pay their electricity bill or to pay their rent,” Johnson said. “We have signs posted all around this building [stating] ‘If you’re sick, stay at home.’ But for so many of our Wisconsin families, that’s a luxury that they cannot afford.” A banner promoting a paid family and medical leave proposal on display at a press conference in the Capitol Wednesday. (Wisconsin Examiner photo)

Other states, such as Minnesota, have enacted paid family leave policies, Johnson noted, mentioning research that suggested lower turnover, reduced costs for hiring and training people and increased employee loyalty. “Wisconsin businesses deserve the same economic advantages,” she said. “Our working families deserve the same sense of security.”

Jesse Kuhlmann, a Janesville grocery store worker whose employer now offers paid family leave, said that wasn’t available to him when his children were born. “Fathers, like mothers, need time to adjust to parenthood to bond with their babies and to care for their partners after giving birth,” Kuhlmann said. “Paid time off would have afforded me to be home, to be present.”

Paid family leave has been a recurring priority for the Democrats in the Legislature and for Gov. Tony Evers, and repeatedly rejected by the Republican majority. Evers included it in his proposed 2023-25 state budget a year ago, and GOP lawmakers stripped it along with hundreds of other items from the spending plan.

He revived the idea as one of a number of provisions in a special session workforce bill, but that was rewritten entirely by Republicans, who made it into a large tax cut bill that Evers vetoed.

The new proposal, authored by Johnson in the Senate and Rep. Francesca Hong (D-Madison) in the Assembly, starts with the state’s existing unpaid Family and Medical Leave law. It expands the definition of “family member” in the law and removes an exemption from the law for employers with fewer than 50 workers.

It also expands the list of events that would qualify a worker for leave — currently, the birth or adoption of a child; to care for a seriously ill child, spouse or partner; or a serious health condition that prevents the employee from working. The bill adds leave for the needs of an employee or family member who is a victim of domestic abuse, sexual abuse or stalking, and for an employee or family member when there is an active or pending military deployment.

The bill includes an insurance program, funded through a required payroll deduction, that would partially replace the wages of a worker on leave. Employees whose weekly earnings are 50% or less of the average Wisconsin weekly earnings would qualify for 90% of their weekly pay. Employees whose wages are more than 50% of the state average would qualify for 50% of their average weekly earnings.

“For the economic security and the care for our working Wisconsin families and working Wisconsinites, legislation and policies that include paid leave are critical,” Hong said. “No one should ever have to choose between care for themselves or a loved one and a paycheck.”

Kristin Schumacher, a public policy researcher, said that low-wage workers are much less likely to have paid time off to care for family members when they’re sick or when they give birth.

“Well more than 2 million workers in our state are facing some of the best moments, or maybe some of the worst moments, in their lives when they have to make impossible choices between their careers and their families,” Schumacher said.

A census bureau survey found that one in three Wisconsin households “struggled to pay for basic expenses,” she said. “Without access to paid time off, many workers in Wisconsin risk falling behind on their bills, not having enough food to eat, or even eviction or foreclosure simply because they put their families first.”

Women of color are disproportionately affected by the absence of paid leave policies, said Christina Thor, executive state director of the Wisconsin chapter of the worker advocacy organization 9 to 5.

“Women of color are likely to be the breadwinners of their families, yet they are also more likely to work in low-wage jobs that do not offer paid leave benefits or fundamental benefits and basic protections,” Thor said. “The lack of paid leave is not just an issue of economic justice — it’s also a matter of racial justice.”

Failure to enact good paid leave policies “will only exacerbate the gender pay gap and economic inequality,” she added.

Johnson acknowledged the likelihood that the bill won’t advance in the current Legislature, but said she hoped that it would still draw attention “because it’s Valentine’s Day, because this is a piece that’s needed to care for everybody.”

The voters that lawmakers represent “deserve the same resources and benefits that we have in this building,” Johnson said. “It’s real hypocritical of us to take paid leave when we have illnesses and necessities, but we don’t want that offer to everybody.”

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