RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A bill that would create a statewide paid family and medical leave program cleared a major roadblock in the Virginia General Assembly this session, but the celebration from supporters may be short-lived.
The legislation passed on a party-line vote in the state Senate last week, something bill sponsor Senator Jennifer Boysko (D-Fairfax) called a “landmark.” Similar proposals have failed there in recent history, despite the chamber’s Democratic majority.
The measure still faces a bumpy road in the House of Delegates, where Republicans want to see how a new private option plays out first. The bipartisan law took effect in July 2022 but the first insurer just obtained approval on Monday, according to the State Corporation Commission.
“Continental American Insurance Company is the first and only company to be granted authority to sell family leave insurance in Virginia. They just received approval today,” said SCC spokesperson Katha Treanor in an email.
Treanor said she couldn’t say if any employers had signed up for the new private option as of Monday evening.
“I think we need to give the private insurance an opportunity to work and to find out what businesses would like to be able to buy,” said House Commerce and Energy Committee Chair Del. Kathy Byron, who sponsored the new law last year.
But Boysko contends that a universal program intended for “virtually all workers in Virginia” will be more affordable and make it easier for small businesses to compete with larger corporations that already offer this as a benefit in some cases.
Much like unemployment insurance, Boysko said employers and employees would pay into a statewide fund each paycheck, thus making the program “self-sustaining” after an initial deposit to get it going.
“For the price of a cup of coffee every week, you are allowing someone to have 80% of their salary replaced,” Boysko said. “The United States is the only industrialized country that has no paid family or no family leave option.”
Boysko said the benefit would last up to 12 weeks for an eligible life circumstance like caring for a sick relative, recovering from an illness or having a baby.
When Abbey Conley had her first baby in 2017, she was only given the option to take unpaid time off. She said medical complications extended her break unexpectedly and her husband, who also didn’t have paid family leave, was forced to head back to work.
“Trying to figure out what we could do to move money around, that was really stressful. I know my husband was really stressed, feeling that pull between working, helping me, helping the baby,” Conley said.
Conley said the lack of flexibility left her new family with mounting credit card debt and forced her to change career paths after leaving the workforce for years.
“I could have been back at my original, successful, full-time job, if I could’ve just had some support to get through that rough time,” Conley said.
The debate is yet another flashpoint that reflects differing philosophies on how Virginia should attract and retain workers. It comes in an election year that will see every seat in the General Assembly on the ballot.
In addition to the private option for paid family leave, Governor Glenn Youngkin has prioritized cutting corporate and individual income tax rates this session to compete with other states. Meanwhile, Democrats want to catch up with neighbors that have already established more comprehensive paid family leave programs.
“It’s very much a recruitment and retention tool. It’s what the market is expecting. What we’re trying to say is it should be an expected way of doing business because families are important,” said Senator Barbara Favola (D-Fairfax).
Byron thinks a mandate is the wrong approach.
“It is hard enough now for people to find people to come to work. I think, most times, businesses are doing everything they can to keep their employees and to offer a great working environment for them,” Byron said.