Paid Family Leave: Taking luck out of the equation

T.A. Barnhart

Twenty years ago, my then-wife and I had a 3-year-old son and a baby about to arrive. I was completing my Bachelor's degree at PSU; she was working full-time. The timing worked out well for us: I was able to go to work right after Jesse's birth, allowing Alison to stay at home. We swapped one salary for another, and that was sufficient to permit us to care for our family.

We were lucky. If Jesse had been born one month earlier, we would have had a month without income. We did not, as is true of most young working-class families, have the suggested 2-month cushion; we had our next paycheck (and whatever remained of my Pell Grant). The experience we had in 1989 points to one of the two main reasons paid family leave is a good and necessary idea: If your luck heads south, you are in deep, ugly trouble. Unless you have a well-endowed savings account or rich and generous family, your family depends on luck as much as anything.

This is a basis for public policy?

Millions of Americans, and hundreds of thousands of Oregonians, depend on their luck holding out. I know from recent personal experience how dicey that can be: A driver making an illegal turn put me into the hospital, yet had I been struck a fraction of a second earlier, I might have been hurt far worse. Luck saved my life (well, that and my bike helmet). I had no control in that situation; it happened so fast, I was simply in the power of forces beyond my control.

Luck: A foolish basis for public policy.

But luck is exactly what too many Oregonians count on to keep themselves and their families intact. What if I had been hit by a car, not last December but a few weeks after our second son was born? We had almost no savings, not because we were lazy, stupid or careless; we were a young family working to make a future. Not many people in that position have the kind of savings needed to get through an extended period of loss of pay. Whether it's the birth of a child or the need to care for an ill family member, it's unacceptable for a decent society to let families suffer because of something as avoidable as a temporary loss of income.

This is exactly what Paid Family Leave (Oregon Family Leave Insurance, SB 966) addresses: temporary loss of income. Very limited — 6 weeks — and very direct: the birth of a child or the illness of a family member. Not loss of job; not a downturn in the economy; not anything but the two specific, absolutely verifiable situations: the birth of a child or the illness of a family member. Neither circumstance should bring financial suffering to hard-working families. A decent, compassionate and intelligent society will ensure that those who are doing something most of us value highly — raising a family, caring for our loved ones — have the means to do so and are not punished because mom had a stroke or your first child has arrived. The ability of a family to be at the side of a loved one in the most vital days of their life should not be a privilege reserved for those who can buy that time. We can make it a right for all Oregonians, and at almost no cost.

The cost is almost negligible: less than a buck a week, $42 per year. I spend more than that a month on beer! I am more than willing to contribute to this fund, and I hope I have the chance. My father is 78, has survived polio and leukemia in his life, and the changes are he'll need care at some point in the coming years. I would like to provide some of that care without having to worry that my own life would be damaged as a result. And with a son about to go to Iraq, should the unthinkable happen and he need care, how good it would be to tend to his healing without the stress of perhaps being evicted. Or worse: to tell him, sorry, I can't afford to be with you when you need me.

This is a straight-forward program; the benefits to workers and businesses are clear. For a few dollars a year, we can put our values into action. And that's the crux of this issue: Our values. Do we demand that people make no mistakes and have the best of luck or suffer the consequences; or do we refuse to let the vagaries of life ruin people's lives? We Americans love to think of ourselves as compassionate, but how willing we seem to be to let many suffer. Paid Family Leave lets us put our compassion into action without compromising the principle that everyone who is able should work for a living.

The Act takes luck out of the equation and lets hard work remain its own reward. And lets families provide the love and care to one another that is, at root, the most basic of human rights.

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    I meant to post this a few days ago, but I've been enjoying some wonderful technical issues (the same ones that deep-sixed my coverage of the No Big Bridge rally). For some specifics on today's action for this vital piece of legislation, see Kristin Tiegen's post here on BO. (Sorry for the delay, Kristin.)

  • David Wright (unverified)

    First Kristin and now T.A. proudly proclaim that Paid Family Leave is for everyone, and at such a cheap cost -- only $42/year!

    Setting aside for a moment the question of the value of Paid Family Leave, some simple back-of-the-envelope math demonstrates that the current proposal simply can't be for "everyone" at that price.

    To wit:

    The benefit offered by this proposal is $300/week for up to 6 weeks. That's a total benefit of $1800.

    The maximum contribution per person, as stated here many times, is $42/year.

    That means that for every benefit paid out, a little more than 42 people would have had to contribute for a full year to cover the cost (not counting administrative overhead, etc).

    Kristin cited the stat (in support of her argument that this is about everybody) that it is estimated that 1 in 2 people will become a caregiver in the next 5 years. Which got me to thinking... just as a hypothetical... if the system only took contributions for 5 years and paid no benefits, at the end of that time how many people could draw benefits from the accumulated fund?

    Easy enough to figure -- 5 years of $42/year contributions is $210 (per person) contributed to the fund. Which means that even after 5 years of nobody taking benefits, it takes more than 8 workers contributing to pay for one benefit.

    So if half (4) of those 8 workers will become caregivers, who decides which 3 of the 4 aren't going to be paid?

    And that's just for a cycle of 1 in 8 workers being paid out every 5 years. Remember my earlier calculation -- only 1 out of every 42 contributors per year could be paid for out of the fund -- hardly "everyone".

    Paid Family Leave may well be a fantastic idea. But the current proposal is being oversold here as "covering" more people at a lower cost than could possibly be the case.

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    Thanks for thinking about the issue and taking it seriously. First off, not everyone would be a caretaker at the same time, and not everyone would need to use the benefit to the full extent, if at all. Systems of paid leave in California and New Jersey, funded in the same manner as proposed for Oregon, are solvent and self-sustaining (one of the few aspects of those governments that are right now!).

    The reason that it's for everyone is that it provides a back-up if needed...I don't use every possible benefit of my health insurance, but it's there for me just in case. Not everyone will need it and not everyone will use it...but Paid Family Leave will give all Oregonians the benefit of peace of mind. It will also give us the benefit of making sure that children, the elderly, injured and ill -- our fellow citizens -- will be well-taken care of, resulting in a healthier, more functional society for us all.

    For all who want to take action today, go to and send a message to your legislator!!

    And, as usual, TA, you rock my world.

  • Eric Parker (unverified)

    "the current proposal simply can't be for "everyone""

    That's because single people are left out. they are always left out - until it comes to election day and then they matter in votes, but nothing much else.

    I weep for the sinlge person who has an aling relative out of state. You're screwed if you are.

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    Single (or any other) people who need to care for a family member who live out of state will be eligible to do so..this is an extension of FMLA, which allows employees to (unpaid) time off to care for a family member, no matter where he/she lives. Just so the employee lives in Oregon.

    And if you would like to change the status of single people, then you can focus your efforts on the Oregon statute that defines family....that would be the first place to start. For legal purposes, the Oregon legislature has to use what is the current state definition of family.

  • dan (unverified)

    it seems like yet another govt hand holding exercise.

    You should be smart enouhg to stash some money away.

    Supporting this bill is supporting the govt saving for you.

    If you are too dumb to take care of yourself, then maybe you shouldnt be having kids in the first place.

  • Kurt Chapman (unverified)

    This IS NOT another government hand holding exercise; it is a meaningful program design to assist qualified employees who have their own serious health condition or a family member with a serious health condition. Unfortunately it also is not for EVERYONE working in Oregon. This program tracks with the eligibility requirements under OFLA, the Oregon Family Leave Act. It covers employees working for a business with 25 or more full time employees. In order to be eligible, the employee must have worked at least 180 days for that employer and averaged at least 25 hours per week.

    This is a good thing and it is funded 100% by the employee. As stated, both CA and NJ already have successful, self sustaining programs. I can think of no rational excuse for not supporting this.

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    You're totally right...thanks!

    Also, to suggest that everybody has the ability to stash that kind of money away is every other type of insurance program, it combines resources to support those who may end up in true need. I couldn't afford heart surgery, nor could I sock money away just in thank goodness I have insurance...Paid Family Leave is but one more form of insurance.

  • Miles (unverified)

    I think David's point shouldn't be totally dismissed. He seems to be correct that in order for the program to work MOST people who contribute will need to not use it. That's not mutually exclusive of Kristin's point that the program is for everyone. It's just that everyone can't use it, because there's not enough money.

    I skimmed the legislation. . .am I right that the program will only pay out if there is enough money? It sounds like it is crafted to NOT be a new entitlement, which means it will be on a first-come, first-served basis. Given the state's current economic condition, that's a smart move. But it could mean that someone who has contributed to the fund will not be able to get benefits if the fund runs out of money.

  • Worked Over, Overworked, and Worked Up (unverified)

    At the end of the day, this is only an issue because US workers get so little personal time, relative to all others in the first world, and most in the developing countries. Coupled with the fact that few receive what used to be considered full-time benefits putting pressure on discretionary time, American workers are terribly overtaxed. Even on a daily basis, they sacrifice more sleep for the sake of work than any other major economic group.

    This creates outrageous situations. So, legislation is designed to address the egregious situations, like Todd and Kristin have been talking about.

    Unfortunately, this is the kind of solution that makes progressives extremely depressed. The State does not subsidize anything without a motive. When those motives overlap with popular interests, you get things like family leave bills. It is pandering. That is not good government. You cannot pander to ANY interest, no matter how well intentioned, without ostracizing another, equally valid community..

    There are LOTS of other very, very good reasons to not be kissing your bosses ass on a given day. Do not insult me by telling me that your life issues are more important or valid than my life issues. No legislation will ever cover every valid scenario. The only solution is to give employees more time off, full stop.

    If we continue to dole out spot fixes, instead of admitting that a lot of our proud traditions, like how we've implemented the Protestant work ethic, suck big green donkey phalluses, we will continue to breed a dependent populace that thinks the end of the rainbow is an entitlement.

    That's the Reps/Dems/Libs. Republicans are glad they have gotten ahead. Democrats identify groups that they would like to help get ahead. Libertarians/progressives appreciate that no one gets ahead until everyone gets ahead. (Save the Ayn Rand BS, lest ye be flamed for out of date...very out of date...material).

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    Eric, to add to Kristin's point: single people also have parents to care for. In fact, it's single people who most often bear the brunt of caregiving for elderly and sick parents. ("You don't have a family, you go stay with mom.")

  • Kurt Chapman (unverified)

    Eric, I also missed the headline extolling the new Oregon Law requiring one to be a legally "married" couple in order to have a child. OFLA and this act would also cover single parents as well as non-custodial parents.

  • Tony Fuentes (unverified)

    I was at the Commerce and Workforce Development Committee hearing yesterday on this bill. My wife and I are proud to be among the many business owners that endorse this proposal.

    Like it or not, this issue is not being effectively addressed on the federal level.

    We are in a distinct minority among industrial countries by not requiring or supporting paid leave - a minority of one.

    The simple truth is many workers cannot afford to give up a paycheck to care for their families. This is the core impetus for SB 966.

    With regard to administration, SB 966 is a modest proposal and it is has not been designed in a bubble, it is designed to be successful.

    It is was clear from the research and testimony from BOLI, the Women's Policy Institute, the experience of the California paid leave program, and other private research efforts that this program will be self-sufficient at least. Most cost analyses presented encompassed at least a decade of projections used actuarial data and employment projections.

    But cost-effectiveness is of course only one test of a social insurance program like. Although, I can appreciate the concept of saving, personal responsibility and so on but I also recognize that having to live paycheck-to-paycheck does not make you less of a parent, less of a son, less of a daughter, and so on.

    Hardworking parents and partners deserve the opportunity to welcome a newborn baby, aid an ill family member, and address other family needs.

    And the Paid Family Leave Act will make this opportunity real for many Oregonians.

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    hooray for Tony Fuentes.

    part of what needs to be recognized is that many of us who work for small company (mine is under 100) like our jobs, our bosses (amazing) and we don't want to leave. the pay may not be the greatest, the benefits may be minimal, but the working conditions -- people you like, being counted on, doing something you feel is worth getting up for in the morning -- make up for a lot. yes, the Family Leave Act requires our job to be kept for us (i forget the minimum employee threshold), but if we lose income during that period, what good does it do us? too many people are forced to cut short their time at home with their new child or sick family member just because of money.

    that is not a good worker. that's a distracted, stressed-out worker. that's an issue waiting to occur. at best, it's a heartache for everyone involved. $300/week may not seem much, but if it gets a family thru those 6 weeks, it's huge. sometimes enough is a treasure.

    i'm glad for employers like Tony who understand that caring for their employees makes for a better business and a better community.

  • Idaho River Journeys (unverified)

    Um...I think "...Worked Up" would be giving you, bottom line, more family leave time. No?

  • dan (unverified)


    You state, "This IS NOT another government hand holding exercise.....This is a good thing and it is funded 100% by the employee. "

    If it is funded 100% by the employee then why do we even need a program. Couldnt the employee save him/herself to be able to afford unexpected circumstances.

    its called smoothing consumption. I do it all the time by putting some of my paycheck into my savigns account. In case something happens in the future, I have some money to cover it.

    So you are taking this responsbility away and say " oh dont worry the govt will help you by taking your money and saving for you"

    helllooo!!!!? What is not hand holding about that?

    I get it now. it is you that are too stupid to save yourself for unexpected circumstances. We can agree to disagree. Just dont come knocking on my door or getting your lame politician to take my money to support your lack of responsibility.

    You make me sick!

  • C. Mitchell (unverified)

    If any of my friends, family, or neighbors came to me asking me for help because they had a spot of bad luck, you can bet I would be happy to give them more than $42 and a hand to help. I am sure that all of you individuals who support this bill, and probably the majority of those who do not support the bill feel the same way. So lets leave the government out of it. I would much rather help my neighbor/aquantance/family member directly than have the government take my money and decide whom to help and under what circumstances. The more money that the government takes from me, the less I can give to those around me.

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    we've just gone through 40 years of taking govt out of the picture, turning "welfare" over to charities, family, etc. look what good that's done. more poverty, greater divergence between rich and poor, the middle class almost destroyed, and a financial system in ruins. yay for less govt!

    this is exactly what govt does so well: takes small amounts from many to create a system that benefits those in need. Medicare, Social Security, hell you can even count the Armed Forces in there (says the vet with 2 kids in service). anybody out there able to afford your own roadway? would you like to pay for your own police force? want to pay a private company to deliver your mail? gonna cross your fingers that your food is safe (and for all the scares, most of our food is safe)? ranting and raving about "big bad govt" usually means "i'm not getting what i want" and that usually means "i'm not involved in the process". get involved, positively, and help shape your govt -- and it is your govt, dudes & dudettes -- as you'd like to see it.

    it's called democracy. whining about it is called quitting.

  • C. Mitchell (unverified)

    T.A. Barnhart, your response amounts to a straw man argument. Don't mischaracterize anyone who disagrees with paid leave as not wanting a government run police force, etc. Don't mischaracterize us as whining and not being involved. You don't know me. Straw man arguments sound good but they avoid the disputed issue by characterizing the argument as being about something different, altogether.

    You also mischaracterized the facts. We have not "just gone through 40 years of taking government out of the picture." Government is bigger now than it has ever been. Know the facts. You are allowed to argue the the US has always had too small of a government, but you cannot seriously argue that the prior to the 1970s, that the government was substantially larger and welfare programs more extensive unless you find some hard facts to back that statement up. Good luck.

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