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HEIDI HEITKAMP: Bill would let workers take partially paid leave

WASHINGTON—When I think about the courageous character of North Dakotans, I think about Beth from Bismarck. About a year into her marriage, her husband became sick with hereditary pancreatitis and died in 2012. That same year, her 9-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son both needed transplants for the same condition and have suffered from complications ever since.

Beth has said, "We don't envision our life with catastrophic illness or health issues—that's not in anyone's life plan at all. You want to work—you want to excel with a lovely happy family."

And that's exactly what Beth did. She considers herself one of the lucky ones—because her job allowed the time to both care for her family and continue working.

"I love my job," she said. "I'm committed to my job because they're committed to me."

But she fears for those less fortunate. Through her time caring for her family, Beth has seen others whose lives unravel because their jobs do not support time off—losing their jobs and therefore their health benefits, their homes and sometimes their marriages.

No family should be forced to choose between their families and their jobs.

In our state, about half of the private sector workforce can't earn a single paid sick day to care for a loved one, whether a newborn, a sick child or an elderly parent. And right now, only about a third of North Dakota's working adults are eligible for—let alone able to afford—unpaid leave.

That's why I'm supporting the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act to help folks earn the time they need to take care of their health and their families.

Our bill would let workers in North Dakota and across the country take up to 12 weeks of leave while earning two-thirds of their monthly wages. North Dakota families tell me all the time that, with little to no paid leave, it's more and more difficult for them to take care of a loved one while also maintaining a job to pay the bills.

When 61,100 North Dakotans act as caregivers to ailing or elderly family members and almost three quarters of North Dakota kids live in households where both of their parents work, something just isn't adding up.

It doesn't take a statistician for North Dakotans to realize that child care across the state is hard to come by, and we don't need anyone telling us about our state's aging population increasingly in need of care.

Providing paid leave also levels the playing field for businesses large and small so they have the resources and flexibility to retain hardworking employees without forcing businesses into the red.

When workers go on leave rather than quitting their jobs due to illness or family issues, businesses don't have to invest in hiring and training someone new. The cost to businesses to replace women caregivers who quit their jobs because of their caregiving responsibilities has been estimated at $3.3 billion.

If we're serious about keeping North Dakota a place where our kids will want to raise families and where our businesses will want to grow and thrive, it's time we started investing in working families. And we can do that by planning for some of our most significant moments in life now.

As North Dakotans, we work for every penny we spend—and this bill is no different. By laying out a two-way street for partially paid leave, both the employees and employers would contribute about $1.50 per week. That's just about the cost of a cup of coffee.

Life happens. Like Beth told me, all of us want to work hard and have strong, healthy families and a thriving economy. So let's invest in the future of our families and our businesses today in a way that embraces successes in our families and our careers.

Heitkamp, a Democrat, represents North Dakota in the U.S. Senate.

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