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February 25, 2024 1:30 am

Local News

Teeing Up for a Future Chance, Democrats Rally Business Owners to Advocate for Family Leave Bill

Credit: iStock

by Erik Gunn, Wisconsin Examiner

A day after Republicans blocked their bid for an economic study on the potential impact of paid family leave, Democrats on the Legislature’s budget committee brought together four business owners to discuss their support for the proposed benefit program. 

Rachel Neill, founder of a Madison tech company, said that she would like employees to be able to take the time off they need after childbirth or for a serious illness.

“I don’t want them to feel compelled to have to come back and not bring 110% of themselves,” Neill said. “That doesn’t help us, and I think that’s what a lot of families are forced to do because they depend on that income.”

Eleven states have some form of paid family medical leave, with Minnesota about to become the next

“Wisconsin is in a real position of disadvantage when it comes to other states and their policies,” said Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison). “This is a thing that is happening around the country.”

Roys cited surveys that found working women with access to paid family leave are 93% more likely to remain in the workforce 12 months after taking the time off, and that in states with paid family leave programs, 20% fewer women leave the workforce in the first year after giving birth. 

“We also have a real workforce shortage in our state,” Roys said. “Paid family leave is really good for our state’s ability to be competitive [with] other states and in terms of our own productivity and keeping people in the workforce who want to be working.”

The four Joint Finance Committee (JFC) Democrats held the roundtable session on the second floor of Cooper’s Tavern on the Capitol Square in Madison. Just a day earlier, the committee rejected all of their proposals for the state labor department budget, cut off discussion on the topic of family leave and prevented a vote on a paid leave study in Wisconsin that they had proposed. 

At Wednesday’s roundtable, Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) emphasized that, contrary to GOP claims, paid leave programs such as Gov. Tony Evers proposed in his budget plan are not some form of unearned benefit. 

“It’s an insurance plan,” Goyke said, comparable to unemployment insurance or Social Security. “It’s really about enabling your employees” to set aside money from each paycheck that would go into a fund, which they could draw on when they needed paid time off after the birth or adoption of a child, due to a personal illness or to attend to a family member’s illness.

Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) told of having to go back to work two days after she gave birth to her now-adult daughter, who was born two months early. Later, Johnson operated a child care business, where sometimes parents would bring in sick children because they could not skip work to care for them at home. “If you’re able to stay home, that’s a luxury that a lot of our parents don’t have,” Johnson said.

The business owners taking part in the roundtable all described the challenges of competing for workers with larger employers with the capital to support paid leave benefits. 

Macy Buhler, a De Forest child care provider, says she has strived to provide child care workers with better pay. She competes with area school districts, among other places, when recruiting potential employees. 

“When I’m interviewing people and they’re literally turning down a job only because of benefit issues, that’s huge,” Buhler says. 

“I’ve had employees leave because they knew they wanted to start a family and I’m not able to offer health insurance,” said Molly Moran, the owner of a Madison wine store. “I think I pay pretty well for an hourly rate, but I am not able to offer those benefits.” 

Similarly, Moran said, she lost an employee who wanted assurance that paid time off would be available for childbirth or a family emergency. Without access to a paid family leave benefit, Moran said she told the woman, “I can’t pay for you and someone else to be behind the counter. I want to give you the 12 weeks that you probably need to recover,” but that wasn’t possible. 

Neill, whose IT staffing company has about 100 employees, said she has been able to offer some paid leave and is flexible with unpaid leave. Other employers in the technology sector are able to offer much more, however. 

“We’re competing with companies that offer really rich benefits — unlimited PTO [paid time off], 20 weeks of paid parental leave. Those things cost a lot of money and a lot of the companies in the tech space have venture funding or a lot of pretty deep pockets that they can afford to do that,” Neill said. “We just don’t have the same funding available. It makes it really hard to keep and attract that talent.”

While paid leave is out of the state budget, backers of the proposal will be seeking a stand-alone bill to establish a program when work on the budget is completed. The small business organizing group Main Street Alliance and the workers rights organization 9to5 Wisconsin have formed a coalition to rally support for paid family leave and other programs to support workers and their families. 

“The Republican candidates who ran for governor last year talked positively about paid family leave,” said Shawn Phetteplace of Main Street Alliance. The idea won the approval of more than 70% of people in a Marquette University Law School poll, he noted. “This should be an issue that’s nonpartisan.”

Even though the finance committee Democrats were unable to move the Republican majority to consider the family leave issue this week, Roys said in an interview that events such as Wednesday’s roundtable still have value for the longer-range legislative process.

“Democrats don’t have control of the committee — we’re outvoted 12-4 every time,” she said. “But it is our job to make it clear what is at stake with the choices the Republicans are making.”

That isn’t limited to criticizing spending or tax policy decisions that Democrats disagree with, but also highlighting “what are the investments that we would make if we had the power to do so,” Roys said, “so that voters have a choice.”

This story was written by Erik Gunn, Deputy Editor at the Wisconsin Examiner, where this story first appeared.

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: info@wisconsinexaminer.com. Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.