State lawmakers try again for paid family medical leave program

By: - February 22, 2022 6:00 am
Newborn baby being sat down on scale

Christian Bowen | Unsplash

Advocates and lawmakers renewed their call Monday for a state insurance program that would create a worker-funded trust fund to cover paid family and medical leave for workers.

“The benefits of paid leave are well established,” said Sen. Janis Ringhand (D-Evansville) during a virtual press conference to outline the proposed bill. “Providing new parents with paid time off to care for newborn or recently adopted children contributes to healthy development, improves maternal health and enhances family economic security.”

The measure would also allow people to take paid time off for their own medical needs or to care for other relatives who need it, including some not covered by the current unpaid state or federal family medical leave laws. According to advocates, many people who would qualify for leave under those existing laws don’t take it because they cannot afford to lose income during the leave period. 

Five people took part in the press event to describe how a paid leave program might have helped them, as parents after birth or as family members with loved ones needing medical care.

Anna Ringstad of Ladysmith described the difficulties she and her family had in trying to care for her grandmother who had been hospitalized after a series of small strokes. After her initial recovery, Ringstad said, her grandmother needed extensive therapy in order to regain enough strength to remain living independently.

“The doctor stated she would only be safe in her home if someone was there with her because she was a major fall risk and needed assistance doing her physical therapy exercises,” Ringstad said.

No one in Ringstad’s family could afford to take time off from work to stay with her grandmother, and her own employer denied her request for unpaid family medical leave because care for grandparents was not included in the firm’s policy.

Her grandmother instead went to an assisted living facility, where Ringstad believes “she didn’t receive top level care” and was not able to recover as much as her family hoped she would. 

“There are thousands of other Wisconsinites that are faced here with this decision with their loved ones,” Ringstad said.

The proposed leave program in the legislation that Ringhand and Rep.  Sondy Pope (D-Mount Horeb) are preparing to release could create an employee-funded statewide insurance plan, with weekly paycheck deductions on a sliding scale based on income. The money would go into a state pool to be paid out to employees when they needed it for family medical leave.

Neither the state nor employers would have to pay for the program, Pope said.

The bill also would include guarantees and expanded eligibility for family medical leave.

Ringhand said that she had hoped the federal Build Back Better budget reconciliation legislation would include paid family medical leave, but that legislation has stalled in Washington, D.C. Ringhand and Pope have introduced similar legislation in several past legislative sessions.

The bill is supported by a coalition that includes Main Street Alliance, a small business advocacy group, as well as the Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health and other organizations.

No Republican lawmakers have signed on to support the legislation, Ringhand said, adding, “It’s unfortunate because I’m sure they have constituents who would certainly benefit from this program.”

“I think it would be very helpful if citizens would ask their legislators why they don’t support this bill,” Pope added. “That gives you an opportunity to advocate for it and them an opportunity to explain why they aren’t.”


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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.