Star Advertiser: No more studies needed: Paid family leave right for Hawaii

April 3, 2018
Like most mothers in Hawaii, I had to make the brutal decision to return to work before my body and baby were ready. I had to fight off the panic of handing him over to strangers, knowing that other mothers had buried children for doing the same. I gave up breastfeeding long before the recommended 12 months. I watched as my child fell into a cycle of illness after illness. Generally, I just missed him. You don’t get a do-over for a child’s life.
We are all acquainted, some of us viscerally, with the urgent need for paid maternity, paternity and family leave in Hawaii. There are only enough regulated child-care spots for 1 out of every 37 infants and toddlers in Hawaii. Someone needs to stay home to care for the very young, as well as the ill and aging. That someone is often a critical source of income for their family. Impossible choices follow.
This year, everyone is at the edge of their seats because paid family leave is poised to become state law. Those most hopeful for this historic possibility aren’t just expectant parents, but also grown children. Most family leave is taken for adult caregiving.
Supposedly, one of the last blockages to enacting a paid family leave program is the need for Hawaii-specific data gauging its feasibility. To address this, paid family leave bills Senate Bill 2990 and House Bill 2598 require the state’s Legislative Reference Bureau to conduct a thorough study to be considered by an “implementation board.” This requirement is a solution without a problem.
In November 2017, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) sponsored and produced a comprehensive feasibility and implementation study through the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women, with economic analysis and actuarial to determine paid leave costs to the state. The report’s cost and usage estimates were based on Hawaii numbers, as well as factors unique to Hawaii such as our high cost of living, high number of multigenerational households, and semi-privatized temporary disability insurance (TDI) system.
Very few states already have this depth of localized data. In fact, Hawaii was one of only three states to receive a U.S. DOL grant to produce such a report. These reports have jumpstarted paid family leave in New York, Washington, and Rhode Island.
Generating a similar report would be redundant and wasteful. The creation of an implementation board to weigh the data, rather than legislators, is another unnecessary excess. Legislators have enough data to mandate the best model for Hawaii. The findings from the 2017 study were clear that the most administratively viable, efficient and cost-effective paid family leave program for Hawaii would be a social insurance model, not employer-provided TDI.
TDI is a broken system that is already a feat for most women to access. And, for private employers, employees face firing if they try to take “too much” leave by combining accrued sick and vacation days with TDI. Beyond the logistics, an employer-provided TDI model would fail women by exacerbating gender inequality. Employers would be unintentionally discouraged from hiring women because sexist notions of women’s “natural” role as caregivers mean that caregiving duties still overwhelmingly fall to women and women would be more likely to take leave.
Let’s leave the excuses behind, and the practice of ripping parents away from new children and ripping them off for their invaluable labor creating families, and thereby our communities. We have everything we need to establish a paid family leave program that all workers can celebrate. And this year, we have the collective will to make it happen.
Khara Jabola-Carolus is executive director of the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women.

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