Advocacy groups push for expansive paid family, medical leave in Illinois
26-week leave policy would make Illinois the 12th state with paid leave laws
A coalition of advocacy and labor groups is pushing for a state law to give Illinois workers 26 weeks of paid leave if they need to recover from an illness, domestic or sexual violence, or take care of a sick family member or new child.
The same groups just celebrated a legislative victory last month with the passage of five days of paid leave – negotiations that took four years but were ultimately agreed to by the state’s most influential business groups and even garnered some Republican votes.
After a quick rebrand to the Illinois Time To Care Coalition, advocates are pushing for a more ambitious leave policy, which would make Illinois the 12th state with mandatory paid family and medical leave. The United States is the only industrialized nation without a national paid parental leave law, while dozens of developing countries also have such policies.
“No one should have to choose a paycheck over their health and the health of their family,” said Wendy Pollack, Women’s Law and Policy Initiative director at the Chicago-based Shriver Center on Poverty Law.
The coalition’s initial proposal – encapsulated in Senate Bill 1234 and House Bill 1530 – would cover all employers in Illinois and all employees who earn at least $1,600 annually. Paid leave would also apply to contract workers.
The benefits to workers would be paid out of a newly created special state fund. The law would require employers to pay 0.73 percent of the wages for their employees and contractors into the Family and Medical Leave Insurance Fund, similar to the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund. An additional fee of up to 0.05 percent could be imposed through administrative rules for administering the program.
Those who need paid leave would need to provide documentation of pregnancy, adoption or guardianship of a new child, their own injury or illness, or that of a sick family member. The leave policy would also cover military-related time off and time needed to recover from sexual assault or domestic violence.
Those workers, if approved for leave, would receive 90 percent of their average weekly wages for their leave period, up to a maximum of $1,200 per week. Eventually that maximum would be adjusted to 90 percent of the average weekly wage in Illinois.
Those potential payouts are in line with the policies of the 11 other states with paid leave laws, although no other state’s law is quite as permissive as the proposal being pushed in Illinois. For example, although Massachusetts allows for up to 26 weeks of total paid leave in one year, it provides for only 12 weeks of paid leave for new parents and those caring for a sick family member, and 20 weeks for those who can’t work due to a long-term illness.
But advocates pushing for paid leave in Illinois are aiming for loftier goals than the programs in other states.
Christina Green, who now works for Chicago-based advocacy organization Women Employed, was only eligible for two weeks of leave when she gave birth to her son in 2020. She would only have had access to 12 weeks of paid maternity leave at the private school she worked at if she had been employed for seven or more years.
Instead of returning to work after those two weeks, Green said she drained her savings in order to take the 12 weeks she anticipated needing. And even then, Green said it wasn’t enough.
“It actually took me around 20 weeks to fully heal,” Green said. “Unfortunately I had no other options but to return to work…I literally budgeted down to the last dollar.”
Angelica Arreguin, a single mom and temp agency worker who organizes with the Chicago Workers Collaborative, shared through an interpreter that she was fired by her former employer when she couldn’t return to her job because her “injury did not heal on their schedule.”
“And if there comes a day that my children become ill and I need to leave work for a month, I expect to be fired instead of being allowed to return,” Arreguin said.
Advocates say paid parental leave would help ease the racial inequities suffered by women like Arreguin and Green, who is Black. The advocacy groups behind the proposal point to a permanent decrease in earnings for women who take time off to care for children or aging parents – an issue set to become more prominent as Baby Boomers age into needing more medical care over the next decade or so.
The coalition is also selling paid leave as a boon for businesses, especially in a labor market where many employers have found it difficult to find or re-hire workers in the wake of COVID-19.
House sponsor state Rep. Sonya Harper, D-Chicago, said lack of a safety net is preventing many women from re-entering the workforce.
“If women in Illinois participated in the labor force at the same rate as women in countries with paid leave, there would be an estimated 124,000 additional workers in the state and 4.4 billion more wages,” she said.
But business groups aren’t engaging with the proposal yet. Rob Karr, President and CEO of the influential Illinois Retail Merchants Association, turned the focus back to last month’s legislative agreement on five days of paid leave.
“Our focus is on the proper implementation of the historic paid leave bill that just passed the General Assembly and has yet to even be signed into law by the governor,” Karr said in a statement.
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