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Small businesses need a paid leave program

Universal paid family and medical leave are long overdue. We’re staring down the best opportunity in our country’s history to join the rest of the world in providing every worker and every small business owner the ability to take time away from our working lives to recover from a serious illness, care for a new child, or care for a loved one. I’m looking forward to the day — hopefully before the end of this year — when we can say we’ve done it.  

As Congress moves forward with the Build Back Better plan and contemplates new and bold policy ideas to build a stronger, more equitable economy, small businesses are watching closely to see if our priorities will be included. Smart and timely investments in our care infrastructure will be critical for small businesses like mine as we bounce back from a turbulent 18 months. 

My bookstore, Changing Hands, has served the Valley for over 47 years. For nearly a half-century, we’ve striven not only to serve our community but to take care of our dedicated employees. For the last year and a half, the Covid pandemic has put that commitment to the test. It’s clearer than ever that all too often our employees, like so many Arizona workers, are one chance exposure, one medical emergency, or one sick child, spouse, or parent away from choosing between their health or family and trying to keep their jobs.  

That’s an impossible choice that no one should have to make. It’s a choice with no winners. When life calls someone away from their job, they may come to work when they should be home. But this isn’t good for them or their family. And it’s not great for my business to have someone on the floor whose mind is elsewhere.  

They can quit, but then they’re out of a job and we’ve lost an investment in human resources that can’t be easily replaced. Finding the right person to work in our bookstore can be very difficult. When we find an employee who can relate to and serve people from all walks of life, who is an avid reader and good communicator, we want them to stick around. When these valued staff members leave, especially unexpectedly, the health of our business deteriorates.  

Recently, one of our great employees needed emergency gallbladder surgery that was finally diagnosed after months of pain and missed days at the store. Her surgeon recommended a week of rest, but she had no more sick days. When she told me she planned to come to work the day after her surgery, I couldn’t believe it. We found a way to give her an extra week of sick pay but had she needed more time or had her illness been more advanced, we would have had to let her go.    

Gayle Shanks

We do all we can to provide our employees with good medical insurance, paid sick days and paid vacation, but when an emergency arises, we just can’t afford to pay for an employee’s extended leave on top of paying for replacement staff to cover their absence. An affordable, universal paid leave program available to small businesses like mine would go a long way toward keeping our great staff intact and helping us to continue to serve the Valley community as we have for decades. 

Thankfully, the plan that Congress will likely consider will provide universal paid leave without increasing taxes on middle-income workers and businesses. The program will be entirely covered by a small increase in taxes for the wealthiest corporations and individuals. After a year and a half when tens of thousands of small businesses have closed and millions of workers have lost their jobs, while at the same time corporate profits have skyrocketed and CEOs have spent their billions to rocket into space, that shouldn’t be too much to ask. 

We have a unique opportunity to learn from the lesson the pandemic has taught us about how difficult it is to manage unexpected employee absences without a plan. Let’s put that plan into place. For the first time in my lifetime, we’re on the precipice of guaranteeing that we won’t lose our jobs or miss a paycheck just because we or a loved one gets sick, or if we choose to have a child. Investing in our care infrastructure is a critical component to the ongoing economic recovery and to building an economy that accounts for our real, lived lives. Let’s seize this opportunity and establish universal paid leave once and for all. 

– Gayle Shanks is the owner of Changing Hands Bookstore and a member of the Main Street Alliance. 


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