This story was originally published on Detroit Free Press
Amy Bearinger spent her postpartum months snuggling her newborn and enjoying time away from her job in higher education to settle in as a family of three. But she also spent those four or five months without pay feeling stressed.
Her job was secure thanks to the Family and Medical Leave Act, and her husband still had his music teacher paycheck. But financially, going from two incomes to one felt like a hardship, and spending that precious time worried about money felt disappointing.
Although baby Elliot was finicky about what infant formula he would tolerate, Bearinger kept trying to push the brands he’d rejected, afraid to spend the extra money on yet another bottle. It was tough to come up with gas money to make it to the pediatrician’s office. When they had a leak and a problem with their furnace, they found themselves asking friends whether anyone knew how to patch something, just to get by.
“We didn’t want to spend money that we didn’t have at the time,” Bearinger said.
Proponents of paid family and medical leave policies at the state level say where you work shouldn’t dictate your ability to care for loved ones. With the support of top Democrats, they’re fighting for Michigan to join the growing list of states with such a policy in place over the objections from business groups.
State Sen. Erika Geiss, D-Taylor, introduced legislation earlier this year to provide up to 15 weeks for workers in the state to receive pay while they take time off work to care for a newborn child, a sick parent or other medical emergencies regardless of company policies.
“It shouldn’t be the employer lottery,” Geiss said.
Before lawmakers returned from their summer break, Whitmer told them to send the legislation to her desk soon so she could sign it into law.
“No one should have to choose between being there for their family and a paycheck,” Whitmer said.
Geiss’ legislation and identical bills in the state House propose covering all or some of a worker’s paycheck depending on their wages. As introduced, the legislation would cover 90 percent of the portion of a worker’s average weekly wage that is equal to or less than 50 percent of the state average weekly wage, 50 percent of the portion that is more than 50 percent of the state average weekly wage. A worker would receive up to 65 percent of the state average weekly wage, which was $1,163.79 in 2022.
As introduced, the legislation requires all employers to contribute to a paid leave program. But Geiss said conversations are underway about changing how the legislation might apply to smaller employers. Under the bill, employers could split up to half the costs with their employees to cover a payroll tax to fund the program.
But that’s not how Geiss wants to describe it. “I loathe to call it a payroll tax. It’s a social benefit much like workers’ comp is or unemployment,” she said. “So that’s really how I think we should be thinking about it.”
For over a decade, advocates have worked to try to enact paid family and medical leave in Michigan. “We have been at this for 12 years and never really been able to have the large business associations come to the table and talk about this,” said Danielle Atkinson, the national executive director and founder of Mothering Justice.
Proponents of paid leave now see an opening in Michigan since they have allies in the Legislature and the governor’s support.
But opposition from business groups continues to pose a potential barrier. Opponents have mounted their own campaign to defeat paid leave. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce helped pull together a group of business associations and local chambers of commerce opposed to the paid leave legislation called the “United Against Workplace Mandates Coalition.”
“We understand that this idea on paper sounds great,” Wendy Block, senior vice president of business advocacy for the chamber, said of a paid leave policy in Michigan. “The details here matter, right? This will raise taxes on employers and employees.”
Brad Williams, vice president of government relations for the Detroit Regional Chamber, said that the proposed mandatory paid leave policy detracts from business’ ability to offer the benefits their employees value the most. “It’s difficult to make the law work that way and that’s why we just don’t think a one-size-fits-all approach is going to work,” he said.
A survey by the Small Business Association of Michigan showed its members opposed the proposed legislation 10 to 1, according to President and CEO Brian Calley. About 70 percent of responding members said it would be “extremely detrimental” to their business. “You sacrifice smaller operations in order to implement something like this,” Calley said. “This is not something that comes without consequence.”
Republican legislative leaders echo business groups’ concerns. Immediately following Whitmer’s speech in which she called for passing paid family and medical leave legislation, House Minority Leader Matt Hall, R-Richland Township, said in a statement his colleagues on the other side of the aisle were “planning to create a new, burdensome payroll tax on small businesses and Michigan workers.” Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt, R-Porter Township, said that the proposed paid leave policy will create “another bloated bureaucratic agency to mismanage this scheme” in a statement Thursday.
Proponents of paid family and medical leave in Michigan counter that without such a policy, employers bear an additional financial burden. A worker might quit because they can’t take paid time off, forcing employers to spend money hiring and training their replacement, they argue. Whitmer has billed paid leave as a way to grow the state’s economy and population.
The U.S. stands out internationally for its lack of paid maternity leave. It’s the only Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development member country without a policy in place.
“So it’s unusual and we have a culture that shuns the fact that we’re trying to have paid leave in this state and in this country where other places it’s just the norm,” said Mothering Justice’s co-deputy director of organizing Aisha Wells, who worked in retail for years. She said she experienced financial and emotional stress trying to switch shifts while she tried to spend time in the hospital with her son, who was born with multiple disabilities.
Grace Cruz pushes back on the argument that a blanket paid leave policy would detract from employers’ ability to converse with their employees and offer the benefits they value the most. Cruz suffered an ectopic pregnancy that required emergency surgery, and another pregnancy that turned into a 10-day hospitalization for Cruz and a month-and-a-half-long NICU stay for her daughter, born two months early. On both occasions, Cruz spent her recovery time arguing with her human resources department and filling out mountains of paperwork in an effort to jump-start paid leave and short-term disability benefits.
“It wasn’t as hard for (managers and supervisors) to be able to get up and take time off, whereas if we wanted to take time off or we had something major happen for our families … people were made to feel incredibly bad for that,” Cruz said. “And no one should have to feel bad for that.”
Christina Hayes, an advocate with Mothering Justice who helped craft the language in the proposed act, has been hospitalized with life-threatening complications from lupus since April. Without a paid leave policy, her mother, Antoinette James, had to use up her three months of paid time off to be Hayes’ advocate and decision-maker as her daughter’s organs shut down.
“I’m praying that what she’s been passionate about, what she’s working on, that it passes because some people don’t have three months of PTO like I did,” James said.
Hayes points out that not all workers have paid time off or even sick leave. In Michigan, 23 percent of people currently have paid family leave through their jobs, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families, a policy advocacy organization focused on women’s equality. “I just hope that everyone gets behind this and knows that needing to take a day off to take care of yourself or a loved one is a universal thing,” Hayes said. “Everyone needs this and everyone deserves to have it.”
Without policy at the federal level, states have decided to create their own. Thirteen states and Washington, D.C., have enacted paid family leave, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center. “The sky has not fallen, the bottom’s not fallen out of their economies,” said Monique Stanton, president and CEO of Michigan League for Public Policy.
Minnesota is the most recent addition to the list of states to enact paid leave. It’s a state where Democrats — as in Michigan — flipped control of the Legislature last fall and liked what they saw in states across the country with paid leave policies in place.
Michigan may soon follow suit. Lawmakers have not held any committee hearings on the legislation introduced by Geiss or identical bills introduced in the state House.
“I would have loved to have at least seen it out of our chamber soon,” Geiss said. But she said that she’s still hopeful that lawmakers will take up paid leave legislation. “I am confident that we will get something done.”