As a small business owner, I am constantly working to do what is best for my employees and my business. One thing I know that would help is the state passing the paid family and medical leave bill, so I’m happy to see the House holding hearings on it at the state Capitol.
I co-own Light Dark Landscape, where we design and install landscapes with an emphasis on sustainable solutions and Minnesota-native species. We are a small company — my business partner and I work year-round with four to five seasonal employees joining us during our busy season. Like everyone else, our crew has faced its share of major life events — pregnancies, sick children, long-term injuries — that are both typical and singularly important times. The pandemic has put a magnifying glass on both what’s broken about the way life and work intertwine and how we can redesign to become more resilient and more forgiving (not unlike a good, sustainable landscape design).
Here’s what the before-times looked like for us.
In 2020 my business partner welcomed her first child into the world. I wanted to provide her with the family leave she needed to heal and care for her new baby. I would want to do the same for any of my employees. We were able to put aside some extra money to pay for my partner’s salary during her maternity leave, but only because we knew with enough time to plan for her maternity leave, and because she just happened to have the only pregnancy in our company for several years. We can’t afford to cover paid pregnancy leave on a regular basis, especially since the funds we saved for her leave were heavily taxed. Those funds looked like “extra profit” that we left sitting in the bank.
Then came COVID-19.
In addition to my partner’s maternity leave, we had to deal with the pandemic. We take the health of our crew and customers seriously, so we ensured everyone had masks and was separated. When we had employees who felt ill, which happened throughout our season, we enforced a two-week quarantine period. This was easier for us to manage, because the federal CARES Act offered a temporary solution for us to support our employees and keep our business running. It provided tax credits so we could pay full wages to our employees while they quarantined at home, ensuring that the rest of us could reduce exposure to COVID-19 and keep the work moving forward, as our season is scheduled back to back with a hard stop set by mother nature.
In the “after time,” these tough choices — between the health of our employees and family and the viability of our company — cannot reassert themselves as the choices that kill small business owners.
There’s no reason the goals of the CARES Act — to keep business going while allowing for periods of time to focus on health and family — only apply to pandemic times. Small businesses like mine employ nearly half of the U.S. workforce, but we cannot bear the costs of supporting families alone. We need the scale and authority of government to create a paid medical and family leave fund that we and our employees pay into incrementally. Not unlike unemployment insurance, a plan like this would allow us to plan for, save, and provide access to financial support for employees as well as us business-owners temporarily called away by health and family demands.
Nearly two-thirds of small business owners across the country support a paid leave policy. We see that, in addition to reasons illustrated above, a public paid family medical leave plan would give small businesses a boost in competing with large corporations for hiring and retaining employees, help small businesses save funds that would otherwise be used to hire and train new staff, and, perhaps most important, provide peace of mind that small business owners and employees don’t have to choose between their health and their livelihoods. To build a more sustainable American future we need a state-backed shared-responsibility paid family leave program to be a part of the “new normal.”
For small businesses, our employees and our whole state, it’s time for our elected officials to finally pass this important, common-sense policy.
Julie Noren is a small business owner in support of paid family leave legislation.
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