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Commentary: SC should make paid family leave a priority. Here's why.

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Beth Moore, communications director, S.C. First Steps

I am an expectant mom and a state employee. As someone committed both to my children and my job, I know the value of paid family leave for myself. As the communications director of South Carolina First Steps, the state’s early childhood agency, I also understand the importance of paid family leave for our state.

Providing workers with paid leave after the arrival of a child or for the care of a sick family member is not a luxurious benefit. It is an investment in families and a smart policy for employers.

A bill in the S.C. Senate would be an important step, giving 12 weeks of paid leave for state employees due to a birth or the adoption of a minor child. This legislation would directly benefit our state’s largest workforce and thousands of families, including my own. It would also set a standard for private employers that could impact hundreds of thousands more. But S.11 has stalled over concerns about how and for whom the policy would apply.

If our state is serious about our commitment to families and our state’s economic future, we must make paid family leave a priority.

Under current law, access to family leave is woefully inadequate. The federal Family Medical Leave Act provides eligible workers with up to 12 weeks of job-protected family leave, but it is unpaid unless an employee has sick or vacation time to spare. Many forgo unpaid leave simply because they cannot afford it. In South Carolina, 62% of workers lack access to federally required leave because they are ineligible based on employer size or job tenure requirements, or because the loss of income would result in serious financial hardship.

Because the United States is the only industrialized nation without a national paid family leave mandate, the responsibility has fallen on states to support working families. Nine states and the District of Columbia have enacted comprehensive paid family leave programs that extend to private-sector employees. An additional 10 states provide paid family leave specifically to state workers. Federal employees recently gained access to paid parental leave through the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act, which took effect in October.

Like similar paid family leave policies, the cost of South Carolina’s proposed bill is modest when compared to its value. A fiscal impact statement prepared by the S.C. Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office says S.11 could cost up to $5.5 million annually out of a $10 billion state budget. This projection does not account for the considerable savings generated by increased employee retention and reduced heath care costs.

The benefits of paid family leave are clear. Improved health outcomes for babies and birth mothers are among the most widely recognized. When cared for by their parents, newborns are more likely to be breastfed, receive timely medical check-ups and immunizations, and experience the responsive caregiving they need for optimal brain development. Families with access to paid leave benefit from better maternal mental health and the increased engagement of fathers.

It also is good for our economy. Family supportive policies have been shown to boost labor force participation and employee retention, especially among women. When more women enter and stay in the workforce, they earn more money, pay more taxes and help ensure that children are raised in financially stable homes.

Despite these financial stakes, women continue to face barriers to gainful employment. The pandemic has made things even harder, particularly for mothers in low-wage or hourly jobs. The lack of support has forced many to reduce their hours or quit their jobs entirely. In the past year, a staggering 1 million mothers have dropped out of the labor market. Bringing them back and restoring our economy will require more paid leave and better access to affordable, high-quality child care.

But family supportive policies are not important just for women. To advance women’s workforce progress and support the wellbeing of all children and families, paid family leave should be gender-neutral and implemented in terms that value all parents equally. No matter their gender or family structure, all parents have a vital role in the care and healthy development of their children. And every working adult deserves fair and equitable treatment on the job.

When all working families can focus on health and well-being without losing a paycheck or jeopardizing their jobs, our children and economy benefit.

South Carolina should prioritize paid family leave.

Beth Moore is communications director of South Carolina First Steps.

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