Karen Lamy DeSousa: A strong national paid family and medical leave policy makes a difference

Karen Lamy DeSousa

If it’s good enough for Massachusetts, why can’t it work across the United States? People should be able to take paid time away from work to welcome a new child, care for a sick loved one, or recover from an illness of their own. Thanks to the laws we’ve passed here in the Commonwealth, working people can soon do all those things. In 2018, Massachusetts passed legislation that guarantees access to paid family and medical leave beginning in 2021.

However, the rest of America may not be as lucky. There has been a lot of talk about different proposals, from universal paid family and medical leave insurance to a restrictive and exclusive parental leave bill. A strong national paid family and medical leave policy makes a difference to me as a business owner who knows that caring for people is an important part of my bottom line. Policies like this help small businesses like mine and the 20 employees I’m responsible for.

Recently, one of my employees — who I’ll call Charlie — told me his mother was ill and he was setting up a mother-in-law apartment to care for her. But, after working all day as an HVAC tech, he just didn’t have the time and energy.

We were as flexible and understanding as we could be. We used earned sick time and paid time off as much as we could afford to. Charlie needed more, but he couldn’t take unpaid time off with two kids in college, a mortgage, and medical expenses. Both his work and his attention to his mother suffered.

I’ve been through this with my own family, and I would have offered paid leave to my employees if I could have afforded it. But I couldn’t. My business didn’t have the money to pay for extended leave, and we didn’t have the time or skills to manage and administer a paid family medical leave program on our own. Setting up an insurance program, managing the qualifications, eligibility and writing the checks is outside our skill set.

I need Charlie and other employees like him. Properly training and preparing a new HVAC tech takes five years at minimum. Losing skilled employees and having to recruit and train new ones hurts our ability to help our customers and could cost us their business. That’s why I’m thankful for the paid family and medical leave policy we won in Massachusetts.

One of the many benefits of the new state paid leave insurance program is that no matter how big or small your business, you can offer this benefit. That means businesses like mine can provide employees with paid time to address family caregiving and medical needs and still have funds to pay for a replacement or more overtime for other employees to keep our business running. That should be true no matter what state you live in.

Policies like this are a win-win for families, workers, Main Street businesses, our communities and our economy. They help us all take the time to care for ourselves and our loved ones. And they help level the playing field between small businesses and big corporations, which have the market power to give good benefits to top managers while squeezing low-wage workers.

Karen Lamy DeSousa is the owner and president of Advance Heat & Air, a commercial HVAC contractor in Massachusetts.

Check out more Small Business for Paid Leave resources at smallbusinessforpaidleave.org.