West Virginia has a unique opportunity to lead the way in providing paid leave benefits to all workers. A bipartisan group of Senators has introduced SCR 41, which would instruct the legislature to study the costs, benefits, and implementation of creating a paid family and medical leave program in West Virginia. Although there is bipartisan support for such a proposal and President Trump called for paid family and medical leave in his State of the Union address earlier this year, only six states and the District of Columbia have implemented such programs. Still, there is no doubt that both lawmakers and public sentiment are very much in favor of paid leave, and West Virginia can be at the forefront of providing these important benefits.
The need for paid family leave for new moms and families is often at the top of any paid leave discussion and for good reason. Paid family leave is tied to reductions in infant and child mortality and has long-term health impacts for children, including reducing the risk of obesity and diabetes.
But paid medical leave is just as critical for workers and families. Guaranteed paid medical leave would allow workers to take time off to care for themselves or family members in times of serious illness. Right now, too many West Virginians are forced to choose between undergoing substance use treatment and keeping a job. A statewide paid medical leave policy would help provide economic security for working people who need time away from their jobs to seek or provide care related to drug use and dependence. Access to such a program could ultimately help prevent job loss or incarceration for people with drug use disorders.
Paid medical leave would also provide military service members, veterans, and their families with significant support. More than 40 percent of post 9/11 veterans have a service-connected disability, and more than 1.9 million veterans or service members relied on family caregiving support in 2013. A paid medical leave policy would ensure that those family members can take job-protected time off to care for their loved one.
Paid leave is a critical tool in overcoming health and economic disparities experienced by people of color. Disparities in access to other economic supports make it more difficult for families of color to absorb the financial shock of an extended family or medical need. Women of color face higher rates of maternal and infant mortality, and access to paid leave would improve these health outcomes.
Paid leave is an important protection for workers, employers, and our economy. It helps maintain workforce attachment, promotes economical use of health services, and hastens return to work. In a state with such low workforce participation, paid family and medical leave would ensure that individuals and families who currently have to choose between seeking medical care and keeping a job would no longer have to make that difficult choice.