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Paid family leave advocates rally at Krepps Park for ‘Picnic for Paid Leave’

MORGANTOWN – A group of people braved Monday’s rain and mugginess to gather at the Kreps Park Pavilion for a “Picnic for Paid Leave.”

It was the final picnic of several held around the state to rally support for paid family leave legislation Congress will be considering in September as part of the $3.5 trillion social infrastructure package moving hand-in-hand with the $1 trillion traditional infrastructure bill.

The picnics were put on by a coalition of groups under the name Paid Leave Works for WV.

Kelley Allen, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, told picnickers that the U.S. is the only developed country that doesn’t offer parental paid leave to new moms and dads. States with paid leave have higher morale and productivity and lower turnover.

The Family and Medical Leave Act allows 12 weeks unpaid leave but that’s not sufficient, she said. One in for new moms go back to work within two weeks of giving birth, she said.

But the paid leave legislation also would also allow workers to take paid time off for their own illness or for caregiving for an immediate family member, she said. And it has bipartisan support of 70% of West Virginia voters, according to polls.

“We have an aging population in West Virginia,” she said. Nationally one in five workers age 55 and up retire early because of a caregiving need or serious illness. “This is causing us to keep people out of the workforce.”

Sens. Shelley Moore Capito and Joe Manchin are both playing pivotal roles in the dual infrastructure packages, she said, and she encouraged picnickers to share their stories with lawmakers to show them the need.

Rebekah Aranda shared her story. She is a member of the Morgantown National Organization for Women and a board member of the state NOW.

She moved to Morgantown in 2012, she said. She was pregnant and needed to find a job. She got a job offer and told the employer she was going to have a baby. The employer told her that should could get four weeks unpaid leave – she wouldn’t have been there long enough to qualify for FMLA – and then she would have to return or lose her job.

“I didn’t even know what I was going to do,” she said. Daycares don’t take babies that young. So she found a different job.

“That shouldn’t be a decision I have to make,” she said. “I should have been able to make career choices based on my career, not based on whether or not I’m going to be able to have a meaningful relationship with my newborn child or have to send them off to a stranger or have somebody else take care of them when I’m supposed to be home bonding with them.”

She said, “It was a kick to then stomach to realize those are the kind of choices you have to make in this country.”

Delegates Barbara Evans Fleischauer and John Williams were among the state and local politicians who attended. Paid leave bills have been introduced in the state Legislature for several years but haven’t moved.

Fleischauer related that over the years she’s had had caregiving responsibilities for several family members, but her husband, WVU professor of law Bob Bastress, had a solid income, allowing her to take time for the family members.

“Not every family has that luxury,” she said.

Williams said that 50 to 60 years ago one person could support a family but that’s not the case any more; both members of a couple have to work.

“That’s what paid leave is about: Empowering the middle class, making the middle the class strong and building back better,” he said. Without paid leave, we’re not allowing women to participate in the workforce and have the same opportunities as men. That might deter young women from pursuing their career goals.

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