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Small Businesses Like Mine Need Paid Family and Medical Leave

Ten years ago, my husband and I opened a specialty oil and vinegar shop. Early on, we learned that our store would be only as good as the people who work in it. To invest in our employees is to invest in our business.

Now we employ five people. One of our most valued long-term employees, Linda, worked at the phone company for 27 years before coming to us. She left the phone company as a retiree but didn’t have enough money from her pension to retire.

When Linda fell and broke both of her arms last year, my husband and I told her to take the time she needed to recover. When payroll came around, I went to her apartment with her paycheck. She was sitting with the TV tray in front of her, deciding how to figure out rent with her leasing agent, what food to cut, and whether to sell her car.

I gave her a full check, including pay for the time she’d been out recovering. She was incredibly relieved, and my husband and I were honored to be able to cover her time, which we continued to do through her recovery.

But this took a toll on our family, our finances, and our business. I have three children and scrambled to pay for child care to cover my employee’s shifts. My husband and I missed a mortgage payment on our house, and we were late on a commercial rent payment.

Our business is thriving, but when it comes to paid family and medical leave, we just can’t do it alone. Many small business owners like me desperately want to offer leave but simply can’t afford it.

In February, I traveled to Washington, D.C. to share my experience with members of Congress at a special briefing on paid family and medical leave hosted by Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut.

I told them the same thing I’ve told lawmakers in my home state of Minnesota: To give small business a fighting chance, we need to level the playing field and adopt a strong paid family and medical leave program.

Whether we’re business owners or employees, we all should be able to take time away from work when a loved one is sick, or we have health problems of our own. In our current economic climate, that’s a real financial struggle for all of us, and it shouldn’t be.

Paid family and medical leave laws create a system where everyone pays in a little, spreading the costs so everyone can benefit. This is the kind of solution that small businesses are clamoring for.

A recent survey of 1,500 small businesses by Main Street Alliance found overwhelming support for national and state paid leave policies. Sixty-four percent of small business owners — including 76 percent of women and people of color — support paid leave.

Linda is now recuperating from hip replacement surgery now, and will also need knee replacement. We have another employee who will likely need time off to assist his mother, who has early onset dementia.

Meanwhile, we’re trying to open another store, which would provide needed jobs in a small town. Yet the dollars we need for the store are being diverted to paid leave.

Nearly every other country in the world has figured out that a low-cost, pooled insurance program is a sound investment in economic and family health.

I’m encouraged that our national lawmakers are willing to listen, but we don’t have time to waste. While Congress discusses paid leave, state lawmakers around the country, including my state of Minnesota, should lead on this issue. Let’s send a clear message to Washington that the time for paid family and medical leave is now.

Sarah Piepenburg, is the owner of Vinaigrette with locations in Excelsior and Minneapolis, Minnesota, and a member of Main Street Alliance, a national network of small businesses.

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