Paid leave in North Carolina’s General Assembly is amongst one of the more polarizing issues for state representatives. However, whether you’re pro-business or an advocate for employee’s rights, our representatives must find a way to reach a middle ground as we find ourselves along with the rest of the nation in an economic crisis and continuing to navigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Are representatives willing to put differences aside to find a solution to expanding paid leave to more North Carolinians, while incentivizing businesses to do so?
In April of 2021, N.C. House Bill 596 or the “Healthy Families and Workplaces/Paid Leave” bill was introduced to house members sponsored by Representative Susan Fisher, Kandie Smith, Pricey Harrison, and Terry Brown. Charles Graham, House Member for District 47 and Congressional candidate, supports the bill, but shares that if a bill does not get a third reading or vote in either house, it dies.
The bill included language that would offer paid leave to employees in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. It also named the need for domestic violence victims to have paid sick days to obtain restraining orders and housing emphasizing that 62,967 North Carolinians reported physical or sexual abuse between June 2017 and June 2018, and 1,036 domestic violence related homicides in North Carolina between 2004 and 2018. Domestic violence has been called “the shadow pandemic,” because more time spent at home in quarantine for individuals suffering from domestic violence meant increased risk of abuse and domestic violence related deaths. Legislation that addresses domestic violence as a guaranteed reason for paid leave currently does not exist in the state of North Carolina.
38% of private-sector workers in North Carolina have no access to earned paid leave, which is roughly equivalent to 1.5 million members of the working class. Paid leave assists low-income workers who cannot afford to take unpaid time off when life happens. This population is mostly comprised of Black, Latinx, Native American, and other underrepresented communities. Over half of full-time employees making less than $20,000 per year do not have access to paid time off.
Pricey Harrison has served as the state representative for NC House District 61 for 18 years. “There seems to be no interest in pro-worker legislation,” says Representative Harrison, who has been a staunch advocate for pro-worker legislation, and has been filing bills related to increasing economic security for working North Carolinians for years, including increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour. She has also advocated bringing back collective bargaining, which would allow workers in unions to negotiate contracts with their employers about pay, benefits and safety. The impact of collective bargaining can resolve a number of workplace quarrels. North Carolina is a “right to work” state, meaning that a union membership is not required as a condition of employment, which reduces the influence of labor unions in the state. This is why North Carolina is one of the least unionized states in the United States.
“Paid sick leave seemed really important during COVID-19,” Harrison says, referring to the dilemma many workers without access to paid sick leave have when they have to choose between losing pay or going to work and spreading the disease. Paid sick days encourage healthier workplaces, schools and child care facilities. Parents unable to take time off work to care for a sick child must send that child to school increasing the spread of disease in daycares and schools.
Charles Graham is a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, and thinks that the Build Back Better Bill, HR 5376 has a chance of passing the Senate. “We know how the pandemic has affected our lives,” he comments. “ This puts our people at a better advantage, especially the difficult times we’ve been going through in the past few years.” This bill proposes four weeks of paid leave, in addition to increased access to affordable health care, among other benefits. He notes that on a state level it is difficult to legislate the private sector, considering some employers have different financial constraints than others. “Some have the financial footing to do those things, and some don’t.” He also says that an employer can reward employees, they should in order to boost morale and encourage employees to stay with the company. Graham also believes that small businesses are the key to boosting the economy and more incentives should be available for entrepreneurs.
Pro-business advocates believe that offering paid leave to employees will leave companies at a financial deficit. Contrary to this belief, businesses could actually benefit from offering leave to workers. Productivity is higher, turnover rate is reduced, and the spread of contagious diseases is lowered by providing paid sick days.
The average business loses $255 per employee per year by having sick workers on the job. A study reported that employers who give their workers paid sick leave have fewer on the job injuries than those who do not offer paid leave. Another study showed that two-thirds of employers said it was easy to comply with Family and Medical Leave, and a 2013 report revealed that 87% of employers in California said that paid family leave programs saved them money. Sick workers are less productive than healthy workers. The cost of losing an employee is higher than providing paid leave.
It is important for the legislature to take North Carolina’s unique industry profile into account, while discussing state policy for paid leave. North Carolina is known mostly for agriculture, food processing and manufacturing, automotive, truck, and heavy machinery, aerospace, defense and furniture.
North Carolina is also one of the most popular places to visit in the United States with a top 10 ranking on the country’s most populated states. Depending on the industry, the size of the business, and impact of the pandemic, it could be difficult for some business owners to provide such benefits for workers. These industries are home to businesses that often have the worst benefit packages for their workers while accruing an astronomical amount of wealth. What ways can businesses be incentivized by the state legislature to accommodate for the cost of providing paid leave to their employees?
Representative Ashton Wheeler-Clemmons, House District 57, notes that the bill has received pushback because the business community is worried about the impact. “I think there are innovative models for paying for it. There are just some different things we have to have a more nuanced conversation about.” Her husband is a business owner so she understands the challenges, and the difficulty of having a productive conversation that gives voice to both sides. She suggests that compromise can look like paying a percentage of someone’s salary after a certain amount of leave is taken that has not been accrued. She also suggests that building a system that other employees can opt into to support each other similar to how teacher leave works. She agrees that people need access to leave, whether it be to take care of their chronically ill parent, a disabled sibling, or their child.
Compromise could be a step forward to a better experience for working North Carolinians. All workers need access to paid leave, and granting this access benefits workers, employers, and the economy.
Aminah is an integrative researcher, activist for Indigenous and Black issues, and advocate fighting violence against women and children. Aminah grew up in Pembroke, North Carolina and is a member of the Lumbee Tribe. Beyond being a Division I track and field athlete in college, Aminah has also channeled her energies into her education having studied Biology at East Carolina University and completing a Masters in Physiology and Biophysics with a concentration in Integrative Medicine from Georgetown University. Her research with Breaths Together for a Change centers blending wisdom traditions, Indigenous epistemology, with Western epistemology to test how mindfulness can reduce racial bias and heal historical trauma. She has served as a Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault victim advocate, a board member for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women NC Coalition, and created Good Medicine Woman LLC to address gaps in knowledge about Indigenous culture. She ran for NC House District 47 in 2022, and is an ECU 40 under 40 Leadership Award recipient.