Bill Clinton FMLA

President Bill Clinton discussed the Family and Medical Leave Act at a 1997 weekly radio address.

As the 26th anniversary of the implementation of the Family and Medical Leave Act passes in August, it’s time to move beyond unpaid leave and support Virginia’s small-business employees and owners like myself.

We’re just a handful of people at my butcher shop, so I work side by side with each of my staff members. For that reason, it’s important to me to build strong relationships with my employees. I want to show them the same care they show me by helping our business succeed.

Recently, an experienced staff member required surgery for a chronic neck condition that was causing him pain and limiting his ability to work. Doctors replaced several vertebrae in his neck, and, after a successful surgery, they ordered him to rest completely to fully recuperate.

He’d been responsible and saved the paid time off I could afford to offer — about two or three weeks — and was able to follow his doctors’ orders for that time. But when the time he’d saved had been used, he returned to work, not wanting to lose out on income. I’m sure he’d have taken more time if he’d had it, and I’m equally sure he wouldn’t disobey his doctors’ advice without a strong reason. But reality meant he was back at work only a short time after this major surgery, doing the type of intensive, physical work that I imagine his doctors would have preferred that he avoided for a while longer.

Over half of FMLA requests for unpaid time off are to recover for personal medical reasons, but loss of income means many people can’t take their full recovery time. In addition, as a small employer of fewer than 50 employees — the job protection guarantees in the act do not even cover my employees.

We’re a small enough shop that when someone takes time off it affects all of us. When a key staff member takes time away, it can be a challenge to keep the business running smoothly, but we all pitch in to make it work. That said, the solutions we’ve come up with have their drawbacks. Other staff members pick up shifts, which I’m very thankful for. But that can mean paying overtime on top of the salary being paid to the employee on leave. At a business the size of mine, that can be an uncomfortably large increase in payroll expenses.

Moving beyond unpaid leave into a paid leave insurance program would mean much smaller increments over time instead of footing the whole bill. A paid leave social insurance program would allow me to use employee’s salaries to cover overtime for other staff, hire a temporary replacement or however I see fit in my business, while employees are still paid from the fund.

As a working small-business owner, someone who’s behind the counter most days we’re open, it also falls on me to cover for staff who are out. The extra hours I put in can help offset the overtime I’m paying other employees picking up shifts. But there are only so many hours in a day, and I put in long hours even with a full staff. So when someone is out I can go weeks on end without a day off. Working these long weeks just isn’t sustainable in terms of self-care. It also limits me as an entrepreneur. The extra hours I spend making sure the shop is running as it should leave little time to think of plans for expansion or a new business venture.

When it comes to paid leave, what we have now is an imperfect system cobbled together by individual businesses that doesn’t provide people sufficient leave, costs too much and leaves us small business owners working ourselves to the bone when an employee has a family obligation or health situation — common life events that everyone experiences.

For businesses the size of mine, the math only adds up when we use the power of numbers that a universal system provides. Right now, the lack of a paid leave system holds small businesses back and leaves people choosing between their well-being and their paycheck. An affordable, universal paid leave system will let employers like me give our employees the benefits we want to be able to provide and free us to keep looking for new opportunities to create jobs and serve our communities.

Donna Welch owns Let’s Meat on the Avenue, a butcher shop and specialty store in Alexandria, and is a member of the Main Street Alliance. Contact her at letsmeatontheavenue2403@yahoo.com.

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