I went into labor with my son five weeks early. It showed me why the US needs a nationally funded PTO policy to support families and businesses, especially during a pandemic.

Business Insider
Jan 8 · 5 min read

Paid sick leave will allow employees to survive without jeopardizing their careers and public health if they become sick.

Families without access to paid sick leave may be left to work while sick during the pandemic.
Families without access to paid sick leave may be left to work while sick during the pandemic.
Families without access to paid sick leave may be left to work while sick during the pandemic. Photo: Halfpoint Images/Getty Images

By Heather Whaling

After going into labor five weeks early on a rural stretch of highway in Ohio, I was picked up by a helicopter and to a hospital for an emergency C-section. My newborn son then spent the first 13 days of his life in the NICU. During this high-stress time, I was singularly focused on doing whatever I could to help him so we could take him home.

I never once worried if I’d get paid for that time away from work or if I’d have a job to go back to. That’s because four years earlier, I’d started my own company. As the CEO, of course I’d keep my job…and of course I’d get paid.

But paid sick days and paid maternity leave aren’t reality for most Americans.

This is problematic during normal times. During COVID-19? The lack of paid sick time perpetuates a public health crisis.

My first-hand experience transformed me into a vocal advocate for paid family leave. I’ve testified during a legislative hearing, created a database to crowdsource paid leave policies, and informally advise businesses considering self-funding this benefit for employees.

No one should be forced to prioritize a paycheck over their own health and well-being or the health and well-being of a newborn, an aging parent, or a loved one suffering from COVID-19.

When someone has a child — through birth or adoption — paid time off should be the norm for new moms and new dads. When someone is potentially exposed to COVID-19, paid sick days should be readily available so they can isolate and not put others at risk.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act expired on December 31, meaning employer reimbursements for paid leave also expired. The new legislation doesn’t fully extend paid leave benefits for all workers, instead businesses can choose whether or not to offer this benefit. Those that do may be eligible for tax credits, but many businesses will not offer paid time off simply because they cannot afford it. In other words, nearly 90 million Americans are on the cusp of being forced to choose between safely following COVID-19 protocols or receiving a paycheck.

As we face another COVID-19 surge, employees can’t afford to lose the safety net of paid sick days.

For Americans who are teetering on the edge, barely able to pay their rent or bills, unpaid time away from work isn’t an option. People will report to work even when they should be in quarantine or isolation, potentially exposing their coworkers and customers, while inadvertently contributing to the surge.

Paid leave is a critical tool in the fight against COVID-19. With our hospitals nearing capacity and cases spiking, we cannot win this fight without the full arsenal of weapons.

Without legislation including financial support, businesses will not offer paid sick days to their employees. Even when business was booming, before the global pandemic crippled the economy, only 19% of Americans — and a measly 4% of hourly workers — had access to paid leave. When given the choice, the vast majority of employers chose not to provide paid leave to their workforce. And now as many struggle to stay open, even fewer businesses have the financial means to offer this benefit to their employees.

But let’s be honest: This isn’t just about COVID-19. We need a permanent fix.

Access to paid days off for sick time, caregiving, or maternity/paternity leave shouldn’t be limited to pandemics, nor should it be relegated to the whims of Congress. If paid leave was critical in March when the Families First Act was initially passed, why isn’t it now, even though COVID-19 numbers are higher than they were in the spring?

Conservative think tanks and big business lobbyists will say that employers oppose a permanent paid leave policy because it’s too expensive. After California implemented a statewide, funded paid leave program in 2004, 87% of businesses that use the program reported no increase in operational costs.

Lobbyists paint a distorted picture; however, reality is that seven in 10 small business owners support paid family leave. Paid leave as a program isn’t prohibitive; the lack of a national, funded policy makes it prohibitive.

As a small business owner, I’ve done the math and know the financial realities of providing paid leave.

Since I launched Geben Communication in 2009, we’ve provided paid sick and vacation time to all employees, and in 2016 we implemented a 10-week paid maternity/paternity leave program for all new moms and new dads (whether they give birth or adopt). I’ve absorbed those costs because I believe it’s the right thing to do. I also recognize that my business is a professional services firm and our financial situation is different than other businesses with lower margins, higher costs and different staffing makeup. Despite wanting to provide paid leave, most business owners simply aren’t in the financial position to self-fund this benefit, especially now.

That’s why we need a national, funded policy. Let’s welcome a debate on how to fund the program to make it practical, fair and equitable. But let’s forever end the conversation about whether paid leave is necessary. This issue is one of the few with bipartisan support: 84% of voters support a national paid family and medical leave policy.

Access to paid time off for sick days, caregiving and maternity leave shouldn’t be luck of the draw. It should be a fundamental right. We need Congress to act because paid leave is good for families, good for business, and — as we’ve learned this year — critical for public health.

Heather Whaling, an EY 2016 Entrepreneur of the Year, is founder/president of Geben Communication, which was recently named as one of America’s top PR Agencies. As a vocal advocate for innovating workplace policies and creator of Rewrite The Rules, a crowdsourced database of maternity leave policies, Heather has helped thousands of businesses evaluate and implement paid family leave programs.

This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

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