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Proponents of the statewide proposal say the United States is the only developed nation that doesn't offer the benefit.

SALEM — A bill to require 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave would bring Oregon up to the living standards of most other developed nations but represents another financial setback to the state's business community, said speakers at a hearing Thursday, March 23, at the Capitol.

The hearing in front of the House Committee on Early Childhood and Family Supports drew a standing room-only crowd with attendees watching from an overflow room and in the hallway.

"It is beyond time for Oregon and the U.S. to join the rest of the civilized world," said Diane Solomon, a psychiatric nurse practitioner with the Oregon Nurses Association.

While many businesses support and offer family and medical leave, the bill is overreaching, said Betsy Earls of Associated Oregon Industries.

The legislation "creates conditions that would make it costly and difficult for businesses — especially small ones — to plan and manage their operations," Earls said.

The bill, sponsored by four House Democrats, would require a mandatory ½ percent deduction from employees' pay. Employers would be required to contribute an equal amount. The money would go to a paid leave insurance program administered by the Oregon Department of Business and Consumer Services.

Employees who have been on the job for at least 90 days would be eligible to use a portion of the benefit; after 12 months, they would be eligible for up to 12 weeks of paid leave for illness or a family member's illness. Employees could take up to 18 weeks of parental leave for a new baby, adoption or foster child placement and receive at least 90 percent of their regular wages or salary.

Four states — California, New Jersey, Rhode Island and New York — have developed some type of paid family leave program. Paid leave for new parents is available for 16 weeks in France, 15 weeks in Canada, a full year in Germany and 15 weeks in Japan, Solomon noted.

About 14 percent of workers across the nation have access to paid family and medical leave at work, according to the Time for Oregon Coalition, which supports the bill.

Federal and Oregon law provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for some, but not all, workers and don't provide lost income.

Some family members are excluded by workplace and economic policies that fail to recognize the nearly 80 percent of American families that don't fit the nuclear family model of a married mother and father and their biologically related children, said Rose King, a coalition spokeswoman.

Proponents cite research that shows women who are forced to go back to work too soon after having a baby are predisposed to postpartum depression. Meanwhile, babies benefit from receiving care from their parents during the first 12 weeks of life, said Dr. Evan Shereck, a pediatrician at Portland's Oregon Health Science University.

"This is a time when children are at their most vulnerable and it is critical to have a caregiver with them 24 hours a day. Unfortunately, not everyone has the option to stay home and care for their new baby," Shereck said.

Opponents said the requirement would add to a mounting burden of new state laws squeezing money out of businesses, including mandatory paid sick leave and increases in the minimum wage.

The requirements would constitute an "unfunded mandate" for cities, counties and special districts, said Mark Landauer of the Special Districts Association of Oregon.

One farmer said the requirement would be another "nail in the coffin" of the agricultural community.

Lisa Stone, whose family owns a Christmas tree farm in Marion County, said farmers are having a hard time absorbing all of the additional costs imposed by the Legislature. She estimated the requirement would cost the family farm about $7,000.

Portland Reps. Jennifer Williamson, Alyssa Keny-Guyer and Diego Hernandez and Woodburn's Rep. Alonso Leon of Woodburn sponsored the legislation.

"Paid family and medical leave is a basic protection guaranteed to working families in countries around the world," Williamson said. "As a country and a state, we are lagging severely behind. It's time for Oregon to prioritize this issue and ensure that a new baby or a health crisis no longer means potential financial disaster for working families."

Paris Achen
Portland Tribune Capital Bureau
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