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Why families now must have paid time off

By Deb Fischer and Angus King
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sens. Deb Fischer and Angus King say now is the time for paid family leave
  • With more women as primary breadwinners, flexibility is a necessity, they argue
  • It's not just children who require personal care and attention, they say; it's also aging parents
  • They propose creating a tax credit to encourage employers to offer paid leave for workers

Editor's note: Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Nebraska, was elected to Congress in 2012. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, was also elected in 2012 and is a former governor of that state. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

(CNN) -- From Nebraska to Maine, and all throughout the country, families face common struggles: balancing responsibilities at home with duties at work; stretching paychecks to make ends meet; the pressure of raising young children while caring for elderly parents. Even with moms and dads working two or three jobs, some families find it hard to get ahead.

President Barack Obama has called for increased flexibility in the workplace. We absolutely agree.

But the usual Washington answers -- such as one-size-fits-all federal mandates -- aren't the solution. Instead, we believe Congress should focus on a balanced approach that respects family obligations and employers' costs of doing business. There are ways to increase options for working adults without hurting existing employment arrangements or threatening job security.

Sen. Deb Fischer and Sen. Angus King
Sen. Deb Fischer and Sen. Angus King

The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 requires employers of 50 or more employees to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, which can be used for events such as the birth or adoption of children, serious medical issues or providing care to close family members.

The problem for many families is that current law does not include paid time off. Unpaid leave is practically impossible for countless Americans, especially hourly workers living paycheck to paycheck.

Many employers voluntarily offer generous compensation packages, which include paid parental or medical leave. A survey of more than 1,100 employers found that 68% of large employers provide paid parental leave.

At the same time, not all workers enjoy these options, despite increasingly complex family demands. Indeed, low-wage workers are more than twice as likely to lack access to paid leave or workplace flexibility than their high-wage counterparts.

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With more than half of women working as primary breadwinners, workplace flexibility has become a necessity for 21st century families. It's not just children who require personal care and attention; it's also aging parents. Nearly half of middle-aged adults have elderly parents and are still supporting their own children.

Over 43 million Americans provide direct care to older family members, with women serving as 66% of all primary caregivers. And as baby boomers age, the number of senior citizens requiring care will likely spike.

Less take-home pay for these caregivers means tighter finances, more stress and lost opportunities -- all at a time when families are confronting health crises or dealing with the challenges of starting a new family. With such events often coinciding with high medical bills, the last thing a stressed family needs is a smaller working budget.

We've offered a proposal that would enable working families to have continued access to pay while they are meeting necessary family obligations. Our plan would create a tax credit to encourage employers to offer paid leave for workers. To be eligible for the tax credit, the employer must, at a minimum, offer four weeks of paid leave; they may offer more.

Paid leave would be available on an hourly basis and would be separate from the other vacation or sick leave. For each hour of paid leave provided, the employer would receive a 25% nonrefundable tax credit. The more paid FMLA time the employer offers, the greater the tax credit. This tax credit would be available to any employer with qualified employees, regardless of size.

Importantly, our bill is a balanced solution. It creates an incentive structure to encourage employers to offer paid leave, specifically targeting those who hire lower income, hourly workers. It recognizes that not all families have the same needs and provides them with the flexibility to pursue their best options.

Strong families build strong communities and strong communities are the fiber of a strong nation. The President has called for partners to work on policies that lift up the middle class. A Nebraska conservative and an independent from Maine have offered a common sense, common ground plan that can make a real difference in the lives of working families. We hope the President is open to our proposal -- middle-class families are tired of waiting.

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