Paid Leave is a Critical Tool to Keep Our Communities Safe and Our Small Businesses Alive
For the past year, COVID-19 has kept me up at night. I’m a small business owner with 75 employees, and I have had many restless nights wondering if we are doing enough to keep our team safe to prevent an outbreak in our food manufacturing facility. This was not an idle concern — it happened in food plants throughout the country and cost people their lives.
As we begin to recover from this pandemic, if I’ve learned anything, at a minimum, we should ensure that all workers are given the ability to put their health and safety first by guaranteeing that they have the financial security to do so. We can do this by reconfiguring our perception of “normal” and finally pass a Paid Family and Medical Leave policy that evens the playing field for all workers and small businesses.
President Biden recently released the American Families Plan. In addition to supporting American workers, the plan would be instrumental in ensuring businesses can recover — and help their employees do the same. We saw the benefits of the emergency paid family and medical leave policies included in the COVID recovery packages over the past year — about half of our employees who could not work remotely used those benefits to take leave for COVID-related reasons — including possible exposure, precautionary quarantine and childcare. The American Families Plan would take those benefits a step further and permanently help businesses do the right thing for their workers.
Over the past 10 years, members of our team have been out for extended illnesses, to care for loved ones, and for maternity leave. Just in the past few months one of our longtime employees contracted viral meningitis. He was out for weeks as he battled a persistent fever and delirium and we paid him to take the time to recover. On a sunnier note, we also currently have one employee out on maternity leave, and two more that are pregnant. Happy events indeed, but not without financial concerns. The last thing any of them needs is the added worry over whether or not they will get paid.
While I personally believe that the return is many times worth the expense, paying for family and medical leave is costly. The financial burden on our own business has been significant. Particularly during the early years before we were profitable, which is why we need a national program. Without it, asking small businesses to cover these expenses out of pocket is really asking for a lot. And the alternative, asking for workers to go without coverage, is at least as bad.
I know I am not alone. Small businesses across the country have been hit hard by this pandemic, and sadly many have been forced to shutter their doors. It should come as no surprise that 64 percent of small business owners support national policy for paid family and medical leave. And we represent nearly half of the private sector workforce, employing more than 50 million American workers.
As Congress and the administration work together on policies to rebuild our economy, permanent paid leave and paid sick days provisions need to be included in any package to make sure we’re never in this position again. And that support should be available to all businesses — including small businesses who desperately need it.
Small businesses are the engine of our economy. To recover and rebuild from this pandemic in the coming years, leaders in Washington should listen to the concerns of small business owners and support us. It won’t solve every challenge we face, but doing so will help us rest a little easier. Our businesses and workers can’t wait any longer for support.
Eric Sorkin is the owner of Runamok Maple, a Vermont-based maple syrup manufacturing business, and member of the Main Street Alliance of Vermont.
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