Paid family leave wasn’t an issue that Terrence Walker thought about much; his wife and son were healthy, and he had a good job as an administrative professional at Virginia Commonwealth University. But when his wife, Tracy, was suddenly diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer in 2013, his entire world changed. For the next six years he was “walking a tightrope” in managing her care, treatments, surgeries and medications, all while working full time and caring for their son, all without a public paid-leave policy.

“It was piecemeal,” Walker said. “We were literally rationing out the time my employer gave to me.”

As a state employee, Walker had 200 hours of paid time off that he could use each year for personal and sick leave. Every time Tracy had a surgery or chemotherapy treatment, he had to balance caring for her against the available time he had to take off. The Walker family received its health insurance through his job, and when Tracy became too sick to work, Walker became the sole earner.

When something unexpected would come up, like when Walker needed to call an ambulance in the middle of the night for Tracy, he’d try to find family members to stay with her, or a neighbor to take his son to school, so that he could still make it to work and keep his job and health insurance.

When Tracy Walker passed away from colon cancer in July 2019, Walker’s colleagues donated leave so that he could take time off for the funeral and care for his son in the immediate aftermath of her death.

“Even after her death, I could have never paid those medical bills without maintaining my employment,” he said.

As Virginia becomes the first Southern state to consider creating a system by which all employees would be entitled to paid time off to care for themselves or a loved one, Walker was invited by the Campaign for a Family Friendly Economy Virginia to share his story with the General Assembly. He listened as legislators voiced concerns that a statewide paid leave system would require time and money to be built and maintained, and fears that people could abuse the benefit.

“The data suggests otherwise,” Walker said to the lawmakers, referring to the five states (plus D.C.) that have paid leave programs up and running effectively, with another three states set to begin in the coming years. “If we want to talk about the well-being of the Virginia economy, that goes back to Virginia families.”

The coronavirus pandemic is shaping the conversation about the need for paid family leave. And it’s also giving states like Virginia new momentum to focus on existing paid family leave campaigns.

Virginia is of particular national interest, given that it is the first state to address paid leave since the coronavirus pandemic began. Nationwide, Virginia is the first southern state and one of a handful of purple states to tackle paid family leave. A statewide paid family leave plan in Virginia could further expand the landscape to other states considering a policy, and absent comprehensive federal paid leave policies, individual states have become the drivers of change.

“We’ve seen a shift these past 40 years, with fewer stay-at-home parents who navigate the challenges while a spouse is working,” said state Sen. Jennifer Boysko of Herndon. Boysko has introduced a paid family leave bill for the past three sessions of the General Assembly. “There is a lack of understanding that this is really an essential item — it’s good for businesses because they get to plan, and good for workers.”

This past legislative session, the administration of Gov. Ralph Northam (D) created a work group to address how Virginia could implement a paid family leave system. The institution of a work group on implementation is the key next step in passing a bill in 2021, said Boysko. By having input from other states, stakeholders from the business community and a survey that received more than 5,000 responses, Boysko believes they can compile a paid-family-leave plan that addresses concerns of legislators who had been previously unwilling to sign on. “There are different ways of handling it, not necessarily a one-size-fits-all,” she said of the plans to fund the benefits, which can include combinations of employers and employees paying into the fund.

The work group on paid family leave recently previewed their findings, which address how such a system would be set up in the state. Unlike states that have set up paid family leave with short-term disability systems already in place, such as New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and California, Virginia would need to build such infrastructure from scratch. But it has a model in Washington state and in neighboring D.C., which were able to build self-sustaining paid leave systems, as well as Massachusetts, which will start paying benefits to workers in January 2021. The District began paying out benefits in July.

“It’s a question of how, not if,” says Tara Gibson, a senior adviser with Campaign for a Family-Friendly Economy who has been assisting with the effort. Both Gibson and Boysko believe that it is the business community, including associations such as Main Street Alliance and Small Business Majority, that has dramatically shifted its stance on paid leave and become a willing partner at the table.

“I’ve had conversations with business owners who are begging for this,” said Boysko.

In a call previewing the work group’s results, Megan Healy, chief workforce adviser to the governor, indicated that small businesses might be exempted from having to pay into it, though their workers would still be eligible for coverage, paid for by the general fund.

That business groups, such as the U.S Chamber of Commerce and the HR Policy association, weighed in with comments signals a shift in thinking: a federal paid family leave policy may be inevitable, and longtime opponents are opting for a seat at the table in crafting such legislation.

Opponents of the paid-leave measure have cited Virginia’s billion-dollar budget shortfall due to lost sales tax and income tax from the coronavirus. The state is the largest employer, after the federal government, and being required to pay into a fund to provide paid leave for employees would also be a significant strain.

Virginia’s path forward is of particular interest to the D.C. region, given the interconnected economy. The District has paid family leave, Maryland has paid sick days, and Virginia has no statewide paid leave programs in place, leading to drastic disparities within the region. “What this could do is create a regional imperative for D.C., Maryland and Virginia to have protections for their workers,” said Vicki Shabo, senior fellow for paid-leave policy and strategy at New America. “And if each jurisdiction will come up with different models and specifications, it will increase the urgency that the stakeholders feel like the federal program would be better and easier to administer.”

Shabo points to an initiative from the Labor Department that received more than 200 public comments on a federal paid-leave program. Groups that had previously opposed federal paid family leave measures, such as the U.S Chamber of Commerce and the HR Policy Association, were willing to weigh in on a federal plan. That is indicative that the groups see the policy as inevitable and want to help decide how it will look.

“Business groups see this as inevitable, and the lines of debate are becoming more nuanced and sharper,” said Shabo, who has published an analysis of the comments received. And Virginia’s task force to move paid family leave forward in the state is an indication that as more purple states — and now the first Southern state — are spearheading these efforts, other states could be inclined to follow, creating a patchwork of paid family plans, until a federal policy exists.

For Walker, the sheer unexpectedness of his wife’s illness showed him why paid leave should be offered to all employees, regardless of where they work. “My wife was under 50, and she was healthy. I don’t know what it’s like for families in low-paying service jobs who don’t have what I had as a state employee. My reality would have been very different based on that.”

Rebecca Gale is an award-winning journalist who has written extensively about paid family leave. Funding for reporting of this story was provided by Better Life Lab at New America.

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