Health

Bills in Raleigh target benefits, family leave

May 14. By Debbie Griffin. North Carolina legislators introduced several bills in March that seek employee benefits ranging from paid sick time and family leave for all to an expanded definition of family and tax-funded insurance.

Some companies may already offer better benefits than the law requires. Others wonder how they’ll stay in business if the legislation passes.

Multiple organizations express support of some type for the proposals, including the North Carolina Justice Center, MomsRising, RaiseUp, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, the NC Early Childhood Foundation (NCECF) and a recent Duke University study.

Kenny Colbert is president of The Employers Association, a membership-based human resources consulting firm serving about 950 member companies in the Charlotte area.

“People come to us for pay data and benefit data,” he said.

Colbert said various propositions for paid benefits come up every few years. Typically, nobody gets too excited until a bill passes at least one chamber of the state legislature.

• The Healthy Families, Healthy Workplaces/Paid Sick Time bill calls for all employees to accrue sick time upon hire and gain it at a rate of at least one hour of leave for every 30 hours worked. The bill defines an employee as someone who worked at least 20 weeks of the preceding year, and a small business as having fewer than 10 employees.

• The Caregiver Relief Act supports expanding the definition of “family” beyond the nuclear unit to include a grandchild, sibling, domestic partner, civil-union partner, grandparent, “or any other individual related by blood to the employee or whose close association with the employee is the equivalent of a family relationship…”

• An NC Families First Act is also known as the Family Medical Leave Insurance Act, which proposes payroll deductions made to a state-run fund that would pay for the benefit of 12-26 weeks of leave.

• NC Health Care for Working Families proposes that participants would be billed monthly to pay an annual premium equivalent to 2% of the family’s household income. They’d also be expected to do prevention and wellness activities. Funding would come from participant contributions and co-pays, as well as federal, state and county sources.

Bills support better health

The federal Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 applies to covered employees at all levels of public agencies, all public and private elementary or secondary schools and private employers with more than 50 employees.

The act entitles workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year for: 1) birth of a son or daughter, 2) care of a spouse, parent or offspring with a serious health condition, 3) care of employee’s own serious health condition, and 4) when an urgent situation develops due to a military member’s service.

However, research shows people don’t use family leave because they can’t afford to be without pay.

Asked what question he fields the most, Colbert replied quickly it’s FMLA: “We get every day, two to three questions asking about the interpretation of the law,” he said. “It’s typically related to a person trying to work the system.”

Colbert said most small companies fill longer absences with a temp or a coworker, and sometimes the job just gets little or no attention during the leave. At bigger companies with several hundred employees, there are more resources to share the extra load.

Market affects pay, benefits, hiring

Colbert is aware of other North Carolina bills, such as acts for pregnancy accommodations and economic security. He said the well-intentioned proposals often die due to a lack of support.

Some legislators are not willing to create new laws that mimic federal ones or impose added expenses. Colbert said the market and unemployment rate naturally create the norm.

Benefits are better when unemployment is low and companies compete harder for quality people. Benefits become a touchy subject when, for example, there is a recession and unemployment is high.

Google recently increased its paid family leave from 12 to 18 weeks, which curbed new-mom attrition by 50%. Colbert said it’s a fine example but not an apples-to-oranges comparison to the majority of Charlotte-area businesses.

“It really comes down to what a company can afford to give,” he said.

Colbert confirms it’s a major economic transition for any company to start offering benefits at all or to expand them. The cost has to be budgeted and economically viable.

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