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Opinion: To strengthen rural communities, expand paid family and medical leave


Here in Missouri and across the country, families are benefiting from a strong and growing economy. But despite a robust job market, the lack of paid family and medical leave has left more and more families struggling and stressed. This is especially true in rural areas, where childcare providers are scarce and workers are even less likely to have access to paid leave through their employer.

Wendy Doyle, president and CEO of the Women’s Foundation.

Several years ago, the Women’s Foundation conducted research finding that both women and men in Missouri were struggling to balance the demands of family and work. Women continue to increase their participation in the labor force, with almost 80 percent of households with children containing at least one member in the workforce. Many Missourians are also caring for both young children and aging parents, but they lack the workplace flexibility to meet their family obligations.

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA), employers are required to provide employees with job-protected leave for medical and family reasons – but the leave is unpaid, meaning that families have to choose between taking leave and making ends meet.

In fact, the United States is the only industrialized country in the world without a nationwide paid family leave program. This has real consequences for our families and businesses, leaving many workers just one crisis away from losing their job.

This challenge is especially acute in rural areas. A recent study by the Humphrey School of Public Affairs in Minnesota found that families in rural communities have an even greater need for paid leave, due to an aging population and a lack of childcare options. Our Status of Women in Missouri report noted that 38 percent of Missouri counties have no accredited childcare providers, with most accredited childcare centers clustered around St. Louis, Kansas City, and Columbia. A 2015 study found that rural women were 24 percent less likely to have access to maternity leave than their urban counterparts.

Fortunately, both Republicans and Democrats are rallying around the need to address the lack of paid family and medical leave with solutions that will benefit families and businesses alike. President Donald Trump has voiced strong support for nationwide paid family leave, and Republicans like Congresswoman Ann Wagner and state Representative Chris Dinkins continue to carry the banner here in Missouri.

Thanks to our work with statewide officials, nearly all state employees in both Missouri and Kansas have access to paid parental leave, and the opportunity to bond with a newborn or adopted child without worrying that it’s going to break the bank.

These leaders recognize that paid family and medical leave supports the Missouri values of strong families and strong businesses, while strengthening our overall economy.

Paid family leave programs are shown to prevent families from falling into poverty and reduce reliance on public assistance. They also lower employee turnover, raise retention and recruitment of talented employees, and increase worker productivity. There’s even evidence showing paid leave programs can raise employers’ stock prices.

Paid family and medical leave will also make it easier for families and entrepreneurs to stay and thrive in our rural communities, protecting our rural way of life.

No hardworking Missourian should have to choose between caring for a child or loved-one and putting food on the table. By supporting paid family and medical leave, policymakers can strengthen our rural economy and improve the wellbeing of families across the state.