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Paid family leave can serve the public good

Viewpoint

My wife is from Sweden and a few years ago we were visiting her family. On a tour bus, the driver explained that every citizen in Sweden receives 480 publicly funded parental leave days. Both parents can take a portion of these days and a good majority of the leave provides 80 percent of the individual’s income, until the child reaches the age of 7.

We are the only industrialized country in the world that doesn’t have paid family leave. They say it takes a village to raise a child. Our village is working two to three jobs. This is a great example of how government can be part of the solution when your legislators are addressing the concerns of the people.

Our culture says “Take care of your kupuna. Take care of your keiki.” But our economic realities are such that to live our values sometimes means resigning ourselves to economic ruin. The growing number of people living on our streets is testament to that.

I know that teachers for sure are hard hit by the struggle to take care of their families while trying to make ends meet due to the fact teachers are the worst paid in the country when the cost of living is factored in. In Hawaii, teachers receive 15 sick days a year. They can use five of those for personal leave. In a female-dominated profession, since we have no parental leave, the majority of teachers don’t feel they can use their sick days when they are sick. Teachers hold on to them and try to collect as many days as possible for when they plan to have a child.

Paid family leave covering all workers — men and women — allowing us to take paid family leave when life presents sudden emergencies fills us with such hope. Other states have done it and have not reported abuse of the system. Important safeguards such as providing documentation for medical emergencies requiring paid family leave ensures that the program serves only those who need it, when they need it.

Like all insurance programs, spreading the risk keeps costs low — and that is why a publicly funded program is ideal because it is not driven by the bottom line but by the goal of serving the public good.

Senate Bill 2990 and House Bill 2598 are currently in conference. Up to 16 weeks at about $58 per worker annually, based on an average worker’s wage of $48,000 a year, has been proposed. I hope something can be done this session. We can always make it better down the road.

As a society we expect a lot of our teachers. We entrust our most precious asset — our children — to them for much of each school day. Well, teachers hope we can have high expectations of our lawmakers too. We look to them to serve all their constituents by delivering a paid family leave insurance plan this year. Please make it happen.

* Justin Hughey is a King Kamehameha III Elementary School teacher and Hawaii State Teachers Association vice president.