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Bucks residents and representatives push sick leave bill


Siobhan Donaldson

James Henderson, a disability advocate, has been without a safety net for years – unable to take off to take care of himself or his family without fear of losing his job. A soon-to-be reintroduced bill might change that.

“The Family Care Act is going to help everyone to prioritize care for themselves,” he said. “With this, you can take care of not just yourself and your family, but have your job too.”

Henderson is bringing attention to the Family Care Act. This bill could give all Pennsylvania’s workers guaranteed sick leave to care for themselves and their families, paying them akin to unemployment benefits for when they need to take off. Initially introduced in 2019, after receiving a hearing in the state Senate, it was delayed because of the pandemic lockdown.

All bills in line to become law are required to be reintroduced in a new session, and after two years, the FCA may see movement shortly.

A year ago, Henderson’s grandmother suffered two strokes resulting in hospital stays and being in and out of rehab. As a part-time worker at the time, Henderson dedicated hours to help her – but knows if he were a full-time employee, it would be significantly harder.

“I’ve been working since I was 15, and I felt as though this was keeping me from being able to be full time,” he said. Pointing out that even without considering his medical needs from spinal bifida, if he didn’t qualify under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), he would lose his income.

Facing a lack of awareness about his condition, he said it places him and others between a rock and a hard place with finding accommodating employers. If the Family Care Act were enacted, his employment opportunities could expand drastically.

“I wouldn’t be held back by my answer being ‘no, I can’t do that,’” he said.

Bucks County representatives feel the same way.

Sen. Maria Collett, who represents Bucks County and co-sponsored the bill in the state Senate, tells of two constituents, a young working couple who experienced the devastating loss of their infant daughter after discovering a congenital heart defect.

They considered themselves lucky due to familial support – even when the father was working to keep them afloat during her final days.

“It was serendipitous since this bill came to us through the Bucks County Women’s Coalition,” she said. “And coupled with their story, frankly, I don’t want anyone to have to decide between caring for their loved one and keeping the lights on.”

The bill guarantees workers a maximum of 20 weeks of sick leave to care for themselves and 12 weeks to take care of their loved ones. If they have been working in the state for 18 weeks and have made at least $2,718 in a 12-month period, they can collect sick leave benefits.

Collett says this will give small businesses the ability to compete with larger corporations by offering their employees sick leave and help them recruit and keep employees seeking out that benefit.

Under the bill, workers pay into the fund at 56 cents every $100, or less than 6%. Self-employed individuals would have access to the fund and could opt-out of the benefit if they chose.

For example, if a self-employed cleaner working in Pennsylvania needs to take time off to care for a partner after they had a fall – the cleaner is covered under the bill.

“When your loved one gets sick, you’re able to get medical leave documentation, and the requirements are correct,” she explains. “Then they would be eligible to receive a portion of their earnings back in a check from the program.”

However, not all workers will receive benefits the same way.

According to the Family Care Act Campaign, a project under the Women and Girls Foundation, a worker’s benefits will be based on a graduated scale model that will bring Pennsylvania to the national standard.

“Under the Family Care Act (FCA), workers will get a portion of their earnings based on an enumerated formula,” a representative said in an email. “but the program is designed so that lower-income workers get a higher percentage of their income while they are out, bringing them closer to 100% wages.”

This could give workers like James Henderson ability to take care of themselves if they need to prioritize their needs during their working life.

Bucks County Rep. Wendi Thomas, who co-introduced the bill in the House, says that the FCA supports all workers, but especially those who have unexpected emergencies.

“With maternity leave, you have some time to prepare – but I see this more when a parent unexpectedly becomes ill,” she said. “I’ve talked to countless people where the responsibility of taking care of their parent fell to them, and they had no preparation for it.”

Thomas believes that this bill will not just give those workers a “little safety net,” But it could also incentivize young families to move to the state.

“The only growing population we have is 85 plus,” she said, explaining that the pandemic showed that people could get suddenly ill and need immediate support.

The representative hopes to see a hearing in the spring and to bring out advocacy for it, saying that this is an urgent issue and that the people of Pennsylvania support it.

Since the commonwealth has passed a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, health care has skyrocketed to the front of everyone’s minds. Unlike its neighbor, New Jersey, Pennsylvania has no state sick-leave policy.

For James Henderson, what matters most is getting the bill to a place where it needs to be.

“From what I’ve learned as an advocate,” he said, “Do not leave this on the back burner; keep talking about it. We’re all in this together; women, workers of color, LGBT workers, and especially workers who are disabled.”

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