Laura Weeldreyer is executive director of the Maryland Family Network.

There’s nothing quite like starting off the week with a good cry. That’s what I did while reading about new paid family leave for federal workers.

The families I read about found themselves in dire or unexpected circumstances, needing to care for aging parents, for children with special medical needs or for a baby on the brink of entering the foster-care system. The stories were deeply emotional, and yet I related to them not just with sadness but also with joy — each of the situations involved families blessed with paid family leave. This allowed each of the individuals to be there when their families needed them the most, without worrying about lost wages or losing a job.

I dried my tears quickly because there is simply too much work to be done. Maryland lawmakers are back in Annapolis, and the Time to Care Act of 2020 will soon be introduced. This legislation would establish a Family and Medical Leave Insurance Program. Time to Care would provide workers with partial wage replacement for up to 12 weeks away from work to care for a new child, an ill or disabled family member or their own serious health condition — life events that can happen to any of us at any time.

There are more than 40 million Americans who provide unpaid care for relatives every year. Most of them are trying to juggle caregiving with their work schedules. Caregiving crises do not discriminate, but low-wage earners are usually the ones hit the hardest, forced to make the difficult choice between working and taking care of their family. When we don’t have the flexibility to care for our family members or ourselves in times of need, elders are left to die alone, parents can’t bond with their newborns, crucial medical appointments are missed and families are forced into financial ruin.

The United States is the only industrialized nation without a paid family leave policy. Only 17 percent of U.S. workers have access to paid family leave, and that takes a heavy toll on our communities. For example, nearly 25 percent of women take 10 or fewer days of maternity leave. This puts themselves and their children at risk both physically and emotionally. Mounting research demonstrates that longer periods of paid leave have positive effects on maternal mental and physical health while reducing the incidence of child maltreatment. Paid leave also leads to an increase in breast-feeding and declines in maternal stress and intimate partner violence. New fathers, meanwhile, are more likely to stay engaged in their children’s lives when they take paternity leave. Yet 3 out of 4 new dads take one week or less of leave when their babies are born, and nearly 60 percent of low-income working fathers report taking zero weeks of paid time off after the birth or adoption of a child.

A lack of paid family leave doesn’t hurt just families, it also hurts our economy. Family-friendly benefits such as paid family leave help companies recruit and retain employees, improve morale and increase productivity in the workplace. Some of the country’s large and fast-growing corporations, including Netflix, Microsoft and Citigroup, offer paid leave to their employees and are reaping the benefits. For smaller businesses, the Time to Care Act would level the playing field, allowing them to compete for the best and the brightest with their big-business counterparts.

The bad news is that too many of us are still forced to choose between the jobs we need and the families we love. The good news is that momentum is building for paid family leave. A national measure (similar to Maryland’s proposal) is under active consideration in U.S. House of Representatives, and many of the Democratic presidential contenders argue that a federal policy is needed. With strong support from House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and the signature of President Trump, the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act recently became law, granting up to 12 weeks of paid time off for the birth, adoption or foster placement of a new child. That’s a boon for Maryland’s thousands of federal employees, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. We can’t wait for Congress to take further action.

I am filled with hope for this legislative session. That’s because Maryland lawmakers have an opportunity to do the right (and the smart) thing. Polling last year by the Opinion Works firm shows that an overwhelming 86 percent of Maryland voters favor creation of a paid family and medical leave insurance program. This support crosses party lines, generations and demographic groups. In all regions of the state, support for paid family leave never falls below 85 percent. Even when told that the program would be funded by a paycheck deduction of $3 to $5 per week, the support of Maryland voters held firm at 79 percent.

Eight other states and the District already have paid family leave. It’s time to make Maryland next. It’s time to dry our eyes, roll up our sleeves and get to work. Our families depend on it.

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