By Daniela Altimari
When Peter Tercyak’s younger sister Marion was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 35, there was no question he would be the one to shuttle her to her doctor’s appointments and chemotherapy treatments.
Tercyak is a nurse, so he understands medical lingo. But his responsibility as his sister’s primary caregiver during her treatment meant he had to miss a full day of work each week. His bosses were understanding and gave him as much time as he needed—without docking his pay or threatening to fire him—a fact he attributed to the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.
“It was only much later when I realized they were just being nice,” Tercyak said. “There was no legal requirement…they didn’t have to say yes to giving me the time off and they didn’t have to hold my job open for me.”
Championed by former Connecticut U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd and signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act allows employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year in order to care for a sick parent, child, or spouse. The state’s version of the law provides 16 weeks of unpaid leave every two years.
But Tercyak — now a Democratic state representative from New Britain — is proposing a major change: creating a system of paid family leave in Connecticut. The program would be funded by employees, with employers withholding a percentage of their workers’ pay.
Supporters say paid leave is especially critical for women, who are often the primary caregivers for children and elderly parents, yet generally earn less than their male counterparts. “Laws concerning family and medical leave must evolve to better reflect the realities people face today,” said Carolyn Treiss, executive director of the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women.
Tercyak would also like to see the law extended to siblings, grandparents and other family members not currently covered. “Everybody deserves the chance to be that person in their family who gets to do all that can be done without worrying about their job,” he said.
The push for paid leave is sharply opposed by business groups; the Connecticut Business and Industry Council calls the measure another example of the “full-scale mandate war against the mom-and-pop” businesses. The group predicted paid family leave would become another cumbersome burden on the state’s businesses, making it harder for them to operate.
“We’re not against paid family and medical leave,” CBIA lobbyist Eric Gjede said. “What were against is a one-size-fits-all mandate.”
Such a mandate would cost both businesses and Connecticut taxpayers, Gjede said. The state Department of Labor would have to hire “hundreds” of new employees to oversee the program and businesses, both large and small, would also face additional administrative costs, which Gjede said are impossible to quantify at this time.
Three states — California, New Jersey and Rhode Island — have a system of paid family and medical leave, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. All three states fund their programs through employee payroll deductions; the programs are administered through their the disability programs.
In Connecticut, a legislative task force recommended a financial benefit equivalent to 66 percent of the employee’s average weekly earnings, up to a maximum of $1,000 a week, for a maximum of six weeks in any 12-month period. All employees who have earned at least $9,300 during that period would be eligible for the benefit, whether or not the employment was with multiple employers.
And unlike the state’s paid sick leave law, which only applies to firms with 50 workers or more, the paid family leave requirement would be mandatory for all private and government employers, regardless of their size.
The push for paid family and medical leave in Connecticut comes as President Obama promotes a similar policy on the federal level, a marquee initiative of his final two years in office.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, whose policy agenda for Connecticut closely mirrors the president’s goals for the nation, has expressed support for Obama’s proposals, calling them “smart, bold and most of all, morally right.”
But asked recently if the Democratic governor would sign a bill mandating paid family and medical leave and extending the benefit to those seeking to help siblings and other relatives, Malloy spokesman Devon Puglia was cautious. “We would carefully review legislation if it passed the legislature,” he said. “We are, of course, proud that Connecticut was the first state in the nation to pass paid sick leave.”
Tercyak, who is co-chairman of the legislature’s labor committee, has already filed a bill amending the state’s family leave policy. “I think the chances of this passing are great this year,” he said. “Most people realize this is common sense.”
According to a 2014 survey conducted by AARP and cited in the task force report, more than half of Connecticut residents 40 and older say they have provided unpaid care to an elderly or disabled family member. And about 70 percent of those residents said it is at least “somewhat likely” they will be a caregiver for a relative or friend in the future.
Then there are those, such as Sara Orris, who are caring for sick children. Orris, a 38-year-old mother of three from Stratford, took unpaid time off from her job as a speech language pathologist last year when her oldest daughter Natalie, then 10, underwent a delicate back operation. Natalie has a chronic neurological disorder that causes severe scoliosis as well as other issues.
“I knew I’d have to be in the hospital with her for at least five days, possibly seven, and give her round-the-clock care for another couple of weeks at home while she learned to walk again,” Orris said.
As part of her union contract, Orris received five paid days to care for her daughter; after that, she was on her own and had to take unpaid leave. “I went without a paycheck,” she said. “That was a real hardship for my family at a time when we were already undergoing a pretty big hardship with a very sick child.”
Gjede noted that many employers already offer some form of paid leave. “Employers have been building more flexibility into their workplaces,” he said. He said CBIA would back a law that provides incentives to businesses to provide such a benefit, but opposes efforts to require it.
Tercyak said he is convinced that a mandate is necessary.
“Many of us are old enough to remember when there was always a family member at home…when families owned one car and that was enough because only dad worked,” Tercyak said. “Mom might have worked too, but that was part time and flexible because of kids kids kids … those days are gone … both parents are working flat out all the time right now and often not able to afford as good a lifestyle as they could when only dad worked.
“We need our rules to keep up with the way our work life and our society is changing,” he said.
Tercyak said he was extremely grateful to his employers, who cut him a great deal of slack after his sister’s diagnosis. “She was very sick and every single week, we traveled down to Yale Cancer Center,” Tercyak recalled.
Marion Tercyak died 18 months later. “It was 15 years ago and it still kills me,” he said, his voice breaking. “Fifteen years and I’m still crying if I go there.”
He paused. “Imagine if I hadn’t been able to be there for her … everyone should get the chance that I got.”