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How Do You Get GOP Lawmakers to Support Paid Leave? Show Them That It Works.

Fiona Goodall / Stringer

When Rhode Island became the most recent (and third) state to adopt a paid family leave policy in July of 2013, the passage of the law was accompanied by predictable grumbling by GOP state lawmakers. State legislator Joseph Trillo said the law was “wide open for abuse.” “I’m very concerned about what will happen," GOP lawmaker Doreen Costa said. Patricia Morgan, another GOP representative, complained, “in a year when we're trying to improve business, this is not helping.” 

Eighteen months after the law went into effect in January of 2014, some lawmakers remain as staunchly opposed to the mandate as they were when it passed. In an email, State Assembly Minority Leader Brian Newberry confirmed his opposition: “While it is true that those relatively few individuals who use the program will benefit from it, it is equally true that most people paying that payroll tax into the system will never use the program and will never see any return for their money.”  He added, “Not only is there no benefit to them, there is an actual loss, both in terms of out-of-pocket taxation as well as in having to cover at work for any fellow employee who uses the benefit.”

In other instances, however, opposition has faded, or even reversed. Businesses, for instance—which might have expressed concern over how they would accommodate workers who leave, especially if they have to hire temporary employees to replace themtold reporters it’s been a “nonissue.”

This may be a function of the way the sponsor, state Senator Gayle Goldin, structured the law—so that employees, not employers, carry the economic burden through their payroll taxes. Rhode Island’s program, called Temporary Caregiver Insurance, builds on the state’s 1940s-era Temporary Disability Insurance, which guaranteed some part of a worker’s salary when the worker takes time off to recover from an illness or injury. The Temporary Caregiver Insurance allows workers to take up to four weeks of paid leave a year to care for a newborn, an adopted child, or a seriously ill partner, parent, or grandparent. Workers pay for it through payroll taxes; the program costs a worker who makes $43,000 83 cents each month. The benefit covers 60 percent of an employee’s paycheck, with a cap of $770 per week. So far, about 5,000 Rhode Islanders have taken advantage of the program, according to the Associated Press.

But at least one GOP lawmaker has had a genuine change of heart that has less to do with calculation of businesses' bottom line, and more to do with the harsh realities facing new mothers and other caretakers who are forced to make difficult decisions regarding the care of their loved ones. 

Dr. Christopher Ottiano, a Republican, was one of the ten Rhode Island state senators who voted against the legislation in 2013. In an interview, Ottiano cited reasons that echo the common thinking we hear from Republican politicians: That it’s harmful to the economy and small businesses. Ottiano admitted to me he's always been more "in the middle" on paid leave than firmly against it, but he worried about balancing employee benefits and business interests in the sluggish post-recession economy. At the time, the unemployment rate in Rhode Island was still over 9 percent (today it’s at 6 percent).

Within six months of the law taking effect in 2014, however, Ottiano reversed himself. “I’ve had a chance to see it in effect,” Ottiano, who was elected to the Senate in 2010, told me. Now, he said, “I’d probably vote for it.”

Ottiano is a 46-year-old physician, who specializes in patients with spinal issues. This means he sees a lot of elderly patients, and it is usually their children or grandchildren who bring them to appointments. Ottiano’s opinion began to shift when he saw how his patients and their families benefited from the program. He remembers one patient who took ten days off from work to help her mother, who was suffering from debilitating back pain. She was only able to do that because of the new law. Ottiano credits the law for allotting the daughter the time and income to help her mother go to therapy and recover, instead of resorting to a nursing home or hospitalization.

When he saw this, his original argument, that paid leave would be too costly, unraveled, as he realized how much Rhode Island essentially saved by keeping patients from being unnecessarily hospitalized. “If you’re going to keep people out of nursing homes and facilities, you need someone at home to help," he said. "Grandma can go home quicker after surgery if someone is at home to make sure she is okay.” (Ottiano tellingly, but not unexpectedly, only mentioned women caretakers when he explained what he's learned.)

In the two other states with paid family leave, California and New Jersey, researchers have yet to discover any of the devastating economic impacts that some Republicans promised. Out of 253 California firms surveyed in 2011 by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the vast majority reported that the six-week paid leave had a minimal impact on their operations. Demos senior fellow Sharon Lerner heard the same in a similar study of 18 businesses in New Jersey. Another study from Rutgers on New Jersey’s paid leave bolsters what Ottiano has observed in his own state: Women who take paid leave after giving birth are 40 percent less likely to use food stamps or other public assistance in the following year.

The states that have passed paid leave have more liberal legislatures than, say, Utah. But they’re also proof that paid leave is not necessarily a liberal concept. The argument can appeal to fiscal conservatives, who want to cut down costs in other areas of government spending. If it’s possible to change minds, then it’s also possible for the U.S. to finally join the rest of the industrialized world in offering paid leave.