By Kate Ramunni via New Haven Register
NORTH BRANFORD In many countries, when an employee needs time off for medical reasons, they continue to collect a paycheck. But that’s not required here, something that U.S. Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, D-3, is hoping to change, and on Thursday she brought with her some powerful support from Washington.
DeLauro joined U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez at Penn Global in North Branford, where family and medical leave is the norm at the woman-owned manufacturing business, to promote the legislation she has introduced for the second year in a row and is hoping will stick this year.
In March, DeLauro and Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y., reintroduced the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, which would assure a paycheck for anyone taking time off from work in the event of illness or to care for an ill family member. Several states already have adopted similar legislation, including New Jersey, California and Rhode Island, DeLauro said, and almost a dozen others are considering it now. Worldwide, it’s the standard in many industrialized countries.
“Paid medical leave has been on the margins of the public political debate, but today, it is an issue whose time is now,” DeLauro said.
President Barack Obama included in his FY2016 budget money for states to develop a paid medical leave policy, she said. “The public policy needs to catch up with the needs of American families,” she said.
“There has been the notion that the only way to get out of the Great Recession was on the backs of workers, and that’s just wrong,” Perez said. “I question every day how to help working families to succeed, and one way is to listen to them.”
And several were on hand Thursday to tell DeLauro and Perez of their experience and how the lack of such a law has affected them.
Jessica DeMeo said she has a master’s degree in counseling and works for the state of Connecticut, which does not offer paid family leave. When she gave birth to her son, she struggled to stay home with him for the first months of his life, she said.
“I was forced to exhaust my vacation and sick time,” she said. “Once he was born, my son needed me in every way imaginable and sadly, that time was cut short.”
Her husband was a graduate student at the time so hers was their only income, DeMeo said. “I was forced to return to work before I was really ready,” she said. “I feel lucky I was able to stay home for the four months that I was, though they were unpaid.”
And when she did returned to work, it was with no sick time or vacation time left, she said. “That was really hard,” she said. “I’m a dedicated employee, I give back to the state and the government, but there’s really no work/life balance.” She’s hoping by the time she has a second child, that the legislation is passed and taking time off will be easier, she said.
“Help us get that extra time with our babies,” she told DeLauro and Perez.
For West Haven resident Dina Quinones Cruz, it was several unexpected surgeries that shattered her life. Cruz has been a certified nurses aide for 28 years yet still only makes $10 an hour, she said. She was working 54-hour weeks before she was hit with gall bladder surgery, she said, and because of the lack of paid medical leave and her dependence on her paycheck, had to return to work only a week later.
“I felt if I didn’t go back, the company would take action against me,” she said, and they, in fact, did, writing her up claiming she couldn’t do her job and dropping her hours to about 14 a week, she said. And then she experienced complications from the surgery that required another surgery, further harming her earning potential.
Her doctor advised her she needed to take time off to rest, but she can’t because of her financial situation, she said. “Not having paid family and medical leave actually ended up making me even sicker,” she said.
It’s companies like Penn Global that are leading the way, Perez said. The company, owned by Marcia LaFemina and Michelle Stonier, offer their employees paid family and medical leave, and it’s apparent from talking to their employees that they appreciate it, Perez said.
“The answer I hear most when I ask them what they like most about their job is the atmosphere and how it feels like a family,” Perez said after touring the facility. “You should be proud of that,” he told LaFemina and Stonier.
But that’s not the case for many people working throughout the state, he said. “You have to win the boss lottery to take care of your kids, and it shouldn’t be like that,” he said. “We lead the world in so many issues but one issue we don’t lead is on paid leave.”
Other countries led by politicians that lean center right or are outright conservative embrace family leave, he said. “It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do,” he said, because today most women can’t afford the luxury of staying home to raise the kids.
“They are asking for the opportunity for when their kid is sick, to be able to stay home and take care of them,” he said. “We are in a modern world but have these ‘Leave it to Beaver’ public policies.”