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Advocates Push for Paid Family Leave in Virginia

Women standing
Jennifer Boysko, right, at a press conference last year. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Last year, 51 year-old Terrence Walker lost his wife, Tracy, to colon cancer. She died in their bedroom, a few doors down from the living room where they were married. Walker’s coworkers at Virginia Commonwealth University pooled enough leave to allow him some time to mourn.

“I felt powerless to do anything about the decline of her life,” Walker said. “I never thought that she would die before the age of 50.”

Walker spent the previous six and a half years sprinting between hospital visits, chemotherapy, childcare and his full-time job, constantly parcelling out his vacation days to juggle his duties. The counselor considers himself lucky given he had access to paid leave at all. 

Advocates for statewide paid family and medical leave say it’s an effective way to assist employees like Walker who need substantial time off. The setup is similar to unemployment insurance. Workers and employers each pay into a fund that covers some of an employee’s salary while they treat their own illness, help care for a new baby, care for a family member’s illness or spend time with a family member summoned for active duty. 

Two Virginia Democrats, Sen. Jennifer Boysko (D-Fairfax County) and Del. Hala Ayala (D-Prince William), are set to sponsor bills to set up a program in Virginia. But they’ll have to overcome objections from the business community and lawmakers in their own party wary of passing on any new expenses to small businesses. 

Boysko, who is making her third attempt at passing the program, is trying to make the case to skeptics that the program is friendly to both businesses and workers. Her previous proposal called for the state to set aside a “tiny amount” of each paycheck for the fund -- about $3  each week from both employers and employees for a worker who makes $60,000 per year. Under that plan, workers could take up to 12 weeks of leave at up to 80% of their usual pay. 

“There are a number of ways to do this,” Boysko said in an interview. “In New York, employers don't pay anything into the system. It's an insurance program. And it will be fully self funded once we get it up and running.”

But several of her fellow senators, including Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City) and Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment (R-York City), voiced concerns about costs to small businesses when Boysko presented her last bill in February. Nicole Riley, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, said advocates’ math is incomplete. 

“The hidden costs that no one’s talking about and no one’s addressing is how to fill an employee who is out for 12 weeks,” Riley said. 

The plan is different from paid sick leave proposals, another thorny topic for Senate Democrats. Those plans cover short absences, with costs shouldered by employers. 

Boysko’s bill last year was shuttled to a study of other states overseen by Secretary of Commerce Brian Ball and Chief Workforce Advisor Megan Healy. The study estimated the costs of setting up the plan at $55.5 million, including an actuarial study to determine the exact tax necessary to fund the program. The setup costs would be repaid using collections from the fund. The program would only begin paying out workers in its third year, after collecting enough tax revenue to fully fund it.

Terrence Walker said the costs are worth it. Paid family leave would have kept him at work and given him more time with his loved ones, he said. And others are facing similar struggles.

“Death is a natural part of life,” Walker said. “And families are going to deal with the ups and downs of what it means to be human.”

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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