Working families in Massachusetts need and deserve the protection of a fair, paid family and medical leave policy that covers all workers. At some point in our lives, all of us will be confronted with a serious personal or family medical emergency. And everyone agrees that newborns and newly adopted children need time to get to know and be nurtured by their new parents. Yet, in Massachusetts, the right to a temporary leave is out of reach for most workers because current laws only guarantee unpaid leave, and even this guarantee does not apply to workers in smaller companies.

Three temporary-leave laws cover some Massachusetts workers. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 guarantees up to 12 weeks a year of job-protected, unpaid family and medical leave to workers in companies with 50 or more employees. The Massachusetts Maternity Leave Act offers women in companies with six or more employees up to eight weeks a year of unpaid leave following childbirth or adoption. And finally, the Small Necessities Leave Act, the Commonwealth’s only attempt to expand the scope of family leave beyond childbirth and extended medical care, allows workers who are eligible for the federal family-leave law to use 24 hours a year of unpaid time to bring children and elderly relatives to routine medical appointments or to attend a child’s school activity.

These laws have helped millions of American families get through family and medical emergencies without losing their jobs, and without causing undue disruption to employers. However, these policies leave thousands of hard-working people in our state high and dry.

Nearly 40 percent of the Massachusetts work force is excluded from any protection under the federal family leave law or the state’s “small necessities” provision because they work for companies with less than 50 employees. And the state maternity-leave law does not necessarily protect a new father’s right to take time off, even when complications leave mothers too sick to care for their newborns.

But the biggest problem for the overwhelming majority of working people, particularly lower-income and single parent households, is they simply cannot afford the loss of income, even for a short period of time. Less than 10 percent of workers have paid parental leave benefits. According to A Workable Balance, a report published by the nonpartisan National Commission on Family and Medical Leave in 1996, 64 percent of those who needed a leave, but did not take one, said they could not afford to take time off without pay. And, of those who had no choice but to take a leave, 20 percent reported that they had to go on welfare.

The United States is way behind the rest of the industrialized world in providing family care support. The fact that the US, the world’s wealthiest country, is one of only two developed nations that does not have a paid parent leave program as a matter of national policy is a national embarrassment.

The United States is way behind in providing family care support.

Massachusetts, in particular, owes its workers something better. After all, their labor built our booming economy and the state’s surpluses. We have never been in a better position to take real action for working families. And we have a range of affordable options available to us.

California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico, and Rhode Island have had temporary disability insurance programs for years. While the programs vary slightly in the amount of wages they replace and the way they are funded, workers in these states are eligible for up to 26 weeks of temporary disability benefits per year. California, New Jersey, and New York are considering adding family care leave to the types of temporary disability covered.

Another option is to update and expand the unemployment insurance system, which is how Canada provides this benefit. Last June, in an effort to bring relief to working parents, the Clinton administration published new unemployment insurance regulations that gave states an innovative and feasible option for funding parental leave. These new rules let states voluntarily expand their unemployment insurance programs to cover parental leave. States can allow workers to use up to 12 weeks of unemployment benefits per year for parental leave following childbirth or adoption.

While the new regulations were hailed by working parents and labor, they were greeted with a firestorm of knee-jerk opposition from the business community and its trade associations. The National Chamber of Commerce organized a coalition of national and local business organizations, hired a high-powered DC-based law firm, and filed suit against the US Department of Labor to try to stop this new form of family support.

In Massachusetts, Associated Industries of Massachusetts mobilized its members against “Baby UI,” as the proposal for unemployment insurance covering childbirth and adoption leaves was called here. Without citing a single study or presenting any research data, they railed against Baby UI, claiming it was bad for their businesses and an inappropriate use of the unemployment insurance fund. Some business leaders said they were not against paid leave for working parents; they just did not want to pay for it. But others were not ashamed to admit they opposed paid leave not only because it would allow more people to take leaves when they needed to, but because they opposed temporary leave rights, period.

One CEO of a nursing home imagined all of his nurses being out on maternity leave at the same time, leaving nobody to care for the elderly residents. (Upon questioning, however, he also admitted that his nurses already have temporary-disability insurance, which covers paid maternity leave.) Another business leader offered this observation: “If people cannot afford to take time off after they have a child, then perhaps they should not have children.”

Despite these objections from the business community and Speaker Thomas Finneran’s efforts to tie the bill up in committee, Baby UI passed the Legislature on the last day of last year’s formal session, as an amendment to a deficiency budget. But Gov. Cellucci, our “family friendly” governor, sided with business and objected to using the unemployment insurance system. Nonetheless, he was careful to avoid an outright veto of paid parental leave benefits for working families. Instead, he sent it back to the Legislature for amendment, suggesting a voluntary tax credit for businesses that provide the benefit.

A voluntary tax-credit program is not substantively different from what we already have. Paid parental leave is already a voluntary benefit, and businesses that offer it are eligible for federal and state tax deductions for some part of the cost. Moreover, this tax-based scheme offers no assistance for nonprofit businesses (hospitals, HMOs, community-based agencies) and municipalities that are tax exempt.

Unable to give paid family leave a full debate in informal session, legislative supporters gave up on it last year. But Baby UI, as well as a Family and Employment Security Act –a temporary disability insurance plan that includes family care–have been refiled for this session.

The demands of business and the financial pressures on workers are becoming unmanageable for many working families. Increasingly, families feel like they have no choice but to work more in order to keep up. Whether Massachusetts creates a temporary disability program or uses the unemployment insurance system–or some combination of both–to provide paid family leave, the Legislature must take action on behalf of working families, who are the driving force behind the Commonwealth’s economic success. It is time to pass a paid family and medical leave policy in the Commonwealth.

Kathleen Casavant is secretary-treasurer of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO. Linda Johnson is executive director of the Women’s Statewide Legislative Network.