Ore. Examines Ways to Extend Time Off for Pregnancies

One of the toughest decisions a mother can face is between caring for a new infant and returning to work.

The first few months of life are a critical bonding time between mother and child; however, with few companies providing paid maternity leave, the loss of even a few paychecks can strain the budget of a middle class family.

A new bill under consideration in the Oregon Legislature would help alleviate the strain by creating an insurance program that would pay workers when they choose to take time off to nurture infants and take care of family members who get sick.

Under the legislation, the state would deduct about $1 from the paychecks of each employee at companies with at least 25 workers.

“For a lot of people who are living paycheck to paycheck, they simply can’t take time off because they can’t afford to go without a paycheck,” said Diane Rosenbaum, D-Portland. “This will enable them to not have to make that extremely painful choice between their job and their family.”

Oregon law stipulates that employers must protect workers’ jobs for up to 12 weeks of leave due to a birth, adoption or serious health condition. But that leave is often unpaid.

Under the new proposal, workers who take time off under situations covered by law, would receive a portion of their salary– up to a maximum of about $500 per paycheck — for up to six weeks.

Rosenbaum said the legislation, which is based on a similar law in California, would benefit employers by reducing employee turnover rates during pregnancies and illnesses.

But business groups questioned whether the bill would give workers enough compensation during extended leaves to survive. And, if it didn’t, where would the additional money come from?

“What is a penny per hour going to do?” said J.L. Wilson, Oregon director of the National Federation of Independent Business. “The fund is either going to run out of money — if any number of people ask for it — or it’s not going to be enough.”

Wilson said that he did not support the legislation because he was fearful additional money would soon be needed to subsidize the fund and that the state might decide to implement an additional tax on employers or workers.

“Neither constituency would go for it,” he said.

Jesse Henderson, a working mother of two, testified in favor of the bill as she balanced her baby toddler, Juna, on one knee.

“It’s a very, very hard choice for women today to say: ‘Here’s a 3-month-old baby, to be cared for by someone else,'” she said.

A spokeswoman for MomsRising, an advocacy group, Henderson said she had received hundreds e-mails from women in Oregon who supported the bill.

“If we’re really caring about our children, if we’re really caring about our families, then this is a no-brainer,” said Henderson.

Although men could also qualify for the family leave, women’s groups have been strong supporters of the legislation.

According to Lisa Senders, a private practice psychologist who is researching the impact of work on women with families, 87 percent of U.S. companies fail to offer paid maternity leave. “The impact of a sick child, an ill family member, overwhelmingly falls upon women,” she said.

Senders said she has seen women with professional careers dropping out of the work force in high numbers because their jobs don’t make enough allowances for them to spend time with their children and families.

“To take time out, without being paid, is just not affordable to most individuals in this state,” she said.