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Political momentum building for family leave law

Lawmakers push to end a system in which 'vast majority of Oregonians . . . are forced to make impossible choices' when medical issues arise.

COURTESY PHOTO: BEN VERHOEVEN - Peoria Gardens owner and operator Ben Verhoeven of Albany offers his year-round employees 12 weeks of paid family leave when they become parents. He took two weeks of paid family leave to help his wife, Kathryn Weeks,  when their children, 3-year-old Thea Verhoeven and 3-month-old John Dallas Verhoeven, were born.SALEM — Advocates are optimistic that in 2019, Oregon could become one of a small but growing handful of states to require some form of paid family and medical leave.

"We do believe 2019 is our time," said Lili Hoag, political director for Family Forward Oregon, a nonprofit advocacy organization.

About six months out from the start of the 2019 legislative session, it's not yet clear what a specific proposal would look like, says House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland. But a group of advocates, legislators and other stakeholders has been meeting to discuss ideas as part of a work group focused on issues related to developing a paid family leave program.

"The vast majority of Oregonians do not have access to paid family and medical leave. That means too many families are forced to make impossible choices when it comes to caring for a new child or a seriously ill family member," Williamson said Friday in a written statement. "...Momentum is certainly building as we head toward the 2019 session. It's past time for our policies to catch up with the realities of how Oregonians live and work."

Five states pass legislation

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act, signed into law in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, requires certain employers to allow employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a new baby, adopted or foster child, or to take care of a sick relative. A paid leave law would effectively require that new parents and those taking care of sick relatives who take time off work for those duties have an opportunity to get compensated for that leave time in some way.

Attempts to pass paid family leave legislation failed this year and in 2017. Five states — California, New York, Rhode Island, New Jersey and Washington — have passed paid family leave laws, as has Washington, D.C.

Ben Verhoeven, owner and operator of Peoria Gardens Inc., a nursery in Albany, gave himself a paid, two-week paternity leave and then took some half days when his daughter was born in 2015. After that experience, and after his wife started volunteering for Family Forward, he decided to offer 12 weeks of paid parental leave to his year-round employees.

"I couldn't stand there and applaud her while I didn't offer generous policies like that to our employees," Verhoeven said. "So we just did it, because I could afford to take two weeks off, but I knew there were a lot of my employees who couldn't afford that, let alone 12 weeks. That's just not financially feasible for many families."

Verhoeven, who also took two weeks off when his son was born early this year, has 24 year-round employees. He hires about 40 seasonal workers every spring, but doesn't offer paid leave to those workers, he said.

'It's ready to pass'

Some business groups are wary that a state paid family leave program could raise costs for employers. Jenny Dresler, director of state public policy for the Oregon Farm Bureau, says many of the state's agricultural employers are already feeling the squeeze.

The state's minimum wage will continue to increase gradually during the next several years, and a paid sick leave law that went into effect in 2016 requires employers with 10 or more employees to provide up to 40 hours of paid sick leave per year.

"Commodity prices are fairly low in the global and domestic commodity markets, so you're looking at folks who have very little capital left to expend on additional programs," Dresler said.

If the paid family leave proposal includes a new tax to fund the program — such as a payroll tax — that would require a three-fifths majority vote in both the House and the Senate.

Hoag thinks 2019 will be different from previous years, now that lawmakers have assembled a work group devoted to the issue and have the long legislative session ahead. "We believe they have the time and expertise and have really worked through the details of this bill enough that in 2019, it's ready to pass," she said.

Advocates hope the program is a benefit run and administered by the state, allowing at least 12 weeks of paid time off, and that it covers close relationships between people who are not blood relatives, or "chosen families."

Family Forward Oregon hosts a screening of a documentary, "Zero Weeks," about the lack of paid family leave in the United States, at Southeast Portland's Clinton Street Theater at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, June 5. The film will be followed by a panel discussion with Williamson, Yee Won Chong, a racial and transgender justice consultant and strategist, and Reyna Lopez, executive director of PCUN (Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste), a Woodburn farmworkers' union.

Claire Withycombe

Statehouse reporter

East Oregonian / Pamplin Media

Office: 503-385-4903