Governor Evers recently released his two-year plan for the state’s budget, which details initiatives like extra funding for K-12 schools and investments in the environment. Wisconsin’s health sector is set to receive special attention from the proposed budget, with just under $750 million dedicated to expanding services, accepting federal Medicaid expansion and legalizing medical and recreational marijuana. The most important and controversial addition to the state’s two-year outline, however, is the topic of paid family and medical leave.
If the current proposal were to be adopted, most private and public sector employees would be eligible for 12 weeks of paid leave in which workers would continue to receive a paycheck while taking care of a sick family member or newborn for up to three months. Evers would also expand acceptable reasons to take paid leave to include other unforeseen circumstances such as military deployment or unexpected childcare center closures.
State Republicans are unenthusiastic about the subject of paid leave, with members of the Wisconsin Congress saying the proposal is unlikely to be supported by the GOP. Stigmas around the impacts of paid leave on worker productivity, economic growth and social welfare are actively prohibiting progress that other states and countries implemented years ago.
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As the law in Wisconsin stands today, employees may take no more than 8 weeks of unpaid paternal or medical leave in a 12-month period, and businesses are only required to continue offering health insurance to those on leave. This is below the national standard established in the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, which grants up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave.
But this federal benchmark still excludes a significant portion of workers — most part-time employees and new recruits. As such, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 44% of the workforce is unable to take any form of extended leave, and no employee is guaranteed a paycheck by the federal government.
Across the board, workers agree this is nowhere near adequate. The New America think tank recommends a 26-week minimum of paid leave for maternal recovery after childbirth and further stipulates that a year of leave might be necessary to meet the basic needs of a newborn infant. Medical emergencies are even harder to predict in terms of recovery, and the national system as it stands today offers no financial protections for chronic or recurring illnesses and treatments.
Paid leave is an important investment for a host of reasons. The most important benefits, which often do not receive enough attention in this debate, are the increased health and safety of workers. Employees forced to work immediately after birth or in the midst of a medical crisis simply cannot perform to their typical standard. Those who cannot afford to take extended time without a paycheck might be susceptible to further injuring themselves by not allowing themselves adequate rest to heal or recover from physical or mental traumas.
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This raises the issue of basic human decency. Individuals caring for a sick family member or newborn child need to be provided time to do so without the burden of trying to retain a consistent income. It is a matter of mental, physical and environmental health at stake.
Expanding paid leave could have benefits that appeal to Republican bases, too. Benefits like these have the potential to increase employee recruitment and retention in the state. When workers are given the resources and flexibility they need, they’re more willing and able to participate consistently and at higher quality.
Resistance to Evers’ proposal portrays the idea of expanding Wisconsin’s current paid leave laws as radical or economically unviable — neither of which is entirely true. Comparing Wisconsin to other states and nations, the state is surprisingly conservative when it comes to caps on paid leave and restricting acceptable reasons for receiving benefits. Expanding the state’s employee benefits to include 12 weeks of paid leave is the bare minimum compared to elsewhere in the country and the world at large.
Extending paid leave, particularly for new parents, has been on the rise across the world for decades. In Europe, the first mandates for required parental leave after the birth of a child came in the very early 19th century. Today, over 120 countries around the world provide some amount of paid parental leave. The Czech Republic alone provides up to 28 weeks of pay for new parents. In Hungary, workers are eligible for up to 24 weeks, and up to five months in Italy.
Despite no federal law in the U.S. mandating businesses to continue offering income to workers on leave, 11 state governments have followed suit with the rest of the world by enacting laws of their own.
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In terms of finances, Evers’ plan is remarkably frugal in the grand scheme of the state budget. The proposal calls for a one-time seed of $243 million by the Wisconsin government at the start of 2025, and the Governor’s Office said the program would pay for itself by 2026. Given the fact that Wisconsin will head into this new two-year cycle in a budget surplus, now is as good a time as ever to invest in worker benefits.
The program even holds the potential to further the state’s economic growth. A report by the National Partnership for Women & Families found that if Wisconsin women participated in the labor force at the same rate as those in countries with paid leave, the state would accrue an additional 22,000 workers.
In the long term, implementing paid leave will bring economic benefits as well as humanitarian ones. Paid leave has to be understood as a basic human right in Wisconsin. Governments around the world have already implemented such laws, making the state a critical outlier in what is rapidly becoming a social norm. We cannot expect to reduce unemployment and increase worker productivity without adequately investing in the workers we have today.
Fiona Hatch ([email protected]) is a senior studying political science and international studies.