WASHINGTON — It’s hard for Patty Clover to provide health insurance benefits and two weeks of paid leave to her 20 full-time employees. The policy hurts her business’s bottom line, but she believes it’s the right thing to do.
“Paying for it has gotten harder in these last couple of years,” Clover said.
The 69-year-old co-owner of Clovers Natural Market likes the idea of employees being able to take time to care for family members, but she worries about the implications a federal mandate might have on small businesses.
“If four people all at once needed (off) … your staff is decimated, and you have to pay for it,” she said.
In Washington, lawmakers are discussing a family and medical leave policy paid for by a series of tax increases.
Paid leave has long been a bipartisan goal. In 2019, U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Chesterfield, introduced a bill providing paid leave alongside other House and Senate Republicans. Despite many efforts, lawmakers of both parties on the state and federal levels have yet to pass a paid family leave policy.
In 2017, Missouri stopped short of passing a bipartisan effort to establish a family leave program. In 2016, Columbia considered creating a paid family leave program for city employees; it went nowhere.
During the Trump administration, Ivanka Trump championed a plan to give all federal employees 12 weeks of paid parental leave. The measure passed with bipartisan support. She also advocated for a universal paid leave policy that could have provided $600 a week for eight weeks, but only for parental leave.
The measure passed by the Ways and Means Committee last week is bigger. It pays workers up to $4,000 a month for 12 weeks. Workers are eligible to receive the funds to bond with a new child, care for a sick loved one and more.
Universal paid leave could be a game-changer for families, said Casey Hanson with Kids Win Missouri.
“Investing in that family unit is critical to make sure that kids are developing and hitting their milestones,” Hanson said. “It’s just harder to do that when you’re multitasking, when you’re going to work and sending your child to child care.”
Studies have found links between access to paid parental leave and lower infant mortality rates. Among the wealthiest countries in the world, the U.S. is one of the only countries to offer no form of paid parental leave.
U.S. Rep. Jason Smith, R- Salem, serves on the Ways and Means Committee. He supports a paid leave program, just not this one.
“Unfortunately, the Democrats’ proposal pushes policies in the wrong direction for Missourians,” Smith said.
Smith specifically took issue with a portion of the program that would provide up to $28,000 in benefits for households making up to $500,000 a year. Smith’s proposed amendment limited benefits to families earning less than $100,000 per year. The amendment failed in a vote that fell along party lines.
“I wanted to put it where it’s reasonable, where you’re actually focused on the problem at hand, and that’s helping working families,” Smith said.
U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, D-St. Louis, has supported similar paid leave provisions. In a statement, she reflected on her own experience as a single mother struggling to make ends meet.
“A national paid leave policy is long overdue in America,” she said.
Lawmakers who both oppose and support the program invoke the interests of small businesses. Small businesses employ nearly half of U.S. workers. At Left Banks Books in Saint Louis, owner Kris Kleindienst said she supports paid family leave unequivocally.
“I think there’s a misconception that if you own a business, the only thing you care about is making as much profit as possible,” she said. “People are just as important to me as the balance in the bank account.”
Small business owners are a diverse group spanning multiple industries and sectors. They are defined by the Small Business Administration as a business that employs under 500 people.
Several left-leaning small business interest groups said paid family leave legislation is long overdue.
“We think this is not only good for American families and demonstrates how we value American families, but we think it’s also absolutely good for American businesses of every size,” said Thomas Oppel with the American Sustainable Business Council.
In a 2019 study, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the smaller the business, the less likely it is to provide paid leave. Nearly 30% of workers employed by a company with more than 500 employees had access to it.
Experts say that makes it harder for small businesses already experiencing a labor shortage to compete for qualified candidates.
Clover said even with the benefits she provides, she has lost workers to employers like Veterans United that can afford to offer up to seven weeks of paid leave for parents who give birth or adopt a child.
“They’d stay with us if we could match it, I’m sure, but we don’t make the same kind of money they do,” she said.
Not all business interests support the bill. Multiple highly influential groups not only oppose the paid family leave measure but also the entire $3.5 trillion plan.
“We’ve got an array of reasons why we’re opposing the whole bill and the process,” said Marc Freedman, vice president of workplace policy with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “It starts with the tax increases; we don’t think those are going to be good for the economy.”
The chamber has signaled support for paid leave in the past, but not in its current form. Instead, it supports paid leave that is funded by employee payroll deductions.
Other groups remain hopeful the legislation in its current form will make its way into law.
“This is a policy that small businesses have been clamoring for and demanding for decades, and this is the first time we’re seeing a federal proposal in place, and it might actually happen,” said Sarah Crozier with Main Street Alliance.
The paid leave program cleared the first hurdle on the way to becoming law, but it has a long way to go. The policy will have to be approved by the full House and Senate.
In the Senate, the policy will face off with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, who wants to cut the $3.5 trillion package to nearly half its current size. Also in the Senate, lawmakers are likely to argue over whether a special budget process called reconciliation can be used to create a paid leave program.
“There is a lot of process left to happen,” Freedman said.
The policy is financed by tax hikes, specifically on the wealthiest businesses and individuals in the country. It’s a proposal strongly opposed by lawmakers such as Smith.
“You have Sen. Manchin saying, ‘There is no way I would support any kind of reckless spending because of how inflation is being affected,’ so there’s no way that the current bill is going to pass,” Smith said.
Instead, he thinks Democrats will have to cut down programs such as paid leave to get legislation to an acceptable price tag.
In Washington, lawmakers will decide the fate of the $3.5 trillion in spending over the next few months. Meanwhile, back in Columbia, Peggy Clover will continue making decisions to support her 43 employees. Likely, Clover and the senators will be wrestling with a similar question.
“I would love to be able to do it all, but the bottom line is, how do you pay for it?” Clover said.