Rhode Island’s Small Victory

AP Photo/Mel Evans

When Governor Lincoln Chaffee signed the Temporary Care Giver’s Insurance law last week, Rhode Island became the third state—along with California and New Jersey—to grant paid time off to care for a sick loved one or a new baby.

Rhode Island’s law, which goes into effect in 2014, will not only provide most workers with up to four weeks off with about two-thirds of their salaries (up to $752 a week), it will protect employees from being fired and losing their health insurance while they’re out.

Workers will be able to use the time to care for a broad range of people, including children, spouses, domestic partners, parents, parent-in-laws, grandparents, and foster children. And, though the maximum single leave is four weeks, each parent can take four weeks off to bond with a new baby. A mother recovering from birth could combine that with an additional six weeks paid through an existing state program, bringing her total paid time off to ten weeks. An entire family with a new baby could have 14 weeks off paid.

Coming just two years after the bill was first introduced, Rhode Island’s quick victory can help us understand why progress in the rest of the country has been so slow—and why it might be picking up.

In the United States, such paid leave is a huge leap forward. But, globally speaking, it’s more of a baby step. Many rich countries, including Canada, Australia, and most of Europe, have long granted their workers paid time off to care for sick relatives. And virtually every country in the world, rich or poor, provides paid time off to care for a new baby—if not for both parents, then at least for mothers. Most provide more than six months of paid maternity leave. More than a dozen countries grant new fathers as well as new mothers more than a year off with pay.

Contrast that with our national policy: the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which grants only unpaid leave—and that to less than 60 percent of the workforce. This has forced many people to choose between their jobs and doing the decent thing—be it caring for a dying parent or sick kid. And it’s meant that many working mothers wind up back at work way before they’d like to be; a majority return within three months of giving birth and one in ten—more than half a million women each year—head back to work in four weeks or less. Yet, until last week, only California and New Jersey, which instituted their paid family and medical leave programs in 2002 and 2010, had managed to guarantee workers paid time off.

This failure can partly be explained by the power of the opposition. In Rhode Island—as in California and New Jersey, and in several cases in which paid family leave proposals have failed—big business lobbied hard against paid leave. Both the National Federation for Independent Business, a corporate lobbying group, and the local Chamber of Commerce testified against the bill in the Rhode Island legislature, citing its potential to burden business. Cynthia Butler, of the Rhode Island State Council of the Society for Human Resource Management, writing in the Providence Journal, painted the law as hostile to employers. And Republican state legislator Joseph Trillo insisted the law is “wide open for abuse."

What was different in Rhode Island—and key to their success—was that this fairly typical opposition was countered by a number of business groups that vocally supported the proposal. Main Street Alliance, the American Sustainable Business Council, the Small Business Majority, and the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce all engaged in the fight from the other side, arguing that caregiver insurance was good for employers and the economy. Instead of having a fight between workers’ advocates and business interests, this time businesses were split.

“Many saw it as a great benefit and value and many didn’t,” says Marcia Coné, CEO of the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island and founder of We Care RI, a coalition of groups that formed to support the caregiver law. Though opposition framed the proposal as likely to be abused, the coalition was able to address these concerns with research from California that showed minimal abuse of their program. Meanwhile, concerns about the cost to businesses were undercut by the fact that employers don’t pay into the temporary caretaker insurance fund, only workers do.

Advocates worked hard to emphasize this last point—that the benefit is employee-funded, and thus budget neutral. “They were incredibly careful to call it Temporary Caregiver Insurance,” says Vicki Shabo, at the National Partnership for Women and Families, a Washington-based advocacy group. “That conveyed it’s something you pay into and something you get back.” Other states around the country can learn from Rhode Island’s victory, says Shabo. “The messaging is totally transferrable.”

But another aspect of the state’s ease with instituting paid leave may not be so easily transferrable. Rhode Island is one of just five states that have long-standing, built-in temporary disability insurance systems that already disburse payments to workers on leave. California and New Jersey—which, along with Rhode Island, established these systems back in the 1940s—have basically expanded them to include caregiver insurance, or paid leave, funds. Meanwhile, Washington, the only state that passed a family and medical-leave law and doesn’t have such an insurance system, was never able to implement its program. Other states starting from scratch on paid leave may have a similarly difficult time putting these laws into effect.

So the lesson for advocates other states, who have already reaching out to We Care RI for guidance, is mixed. While the passage of their law may signal that the political tide is turning in favor of this basic benefit, only the two remaining states with built-in temporary disability systems—New York and Hawaii—may be able to do so with ease.

While several states, including Connecticut and Vermont, are exploring the knotty logistics of providing caregivers’ insurance without a system in place, the problem “gives juice to a federal solution,” according to Shabo. That big fix—and the big fight that will no doubt accompany it—may come soon. Shabo says her group is working on getting federal legislation introduced this year.

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