Christine Stuart photo

If you work for a Connecticut company with 50 or more employees, then it’s likely you qualify for 16 weeks of leave under the Family Medical Leave Act. But what most people don’t know is that it’s unpaid leave.

In today’s economy that’s causing young families to postpone having children. Other older workers are finding it difficult to take the necessary time off to care for themselves or for a loved one.

A diverse group of advocates called on the legislature’s Labor and Public Employees Committee on Tuesday to pass a bill that will create a task force to investigate a partial wage replacement program for employees on leave to give birth to a child, take care of a loved one, or care for themselves.

Jillian Gilchrest, assistant policy director at the Connecticut Association for Human Services, said about 67 percent of people take leave to treat their own illness. She said that comes as no surprise since Connecticut has the second highest cancer rate for women and fourth highest for men.

“Sometimes you just can accumulate enough sick time in order to take an adequate leave,” Gilchrest said.

That’s a situation known all too well to individuals with a chronic illness.

“Private disability insurance providers are permitted to deny the issuance of policies to persons with pre-existing conditions (chronic illness),” Brittany Allen, an attorney for Advocacy for Patients with Chronic Illness, said. “Typically a person with a chronic illness can only obtain such a policy through an employer-based group plan, but these are rare benefits.”

She added that the Patient and Affordable Care Act addresses pre-existing conditions for health insurance policies, but it does not address private short-term and long-term disability policies.

Teresa Younger, executive director of the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, said that part of the challenge Connecticut faces is the absence of temporary statewide disability insurance. She said there are no options for workers to partially fund their leave through any type of insurance policy at the moment.

Gilchrest said the two states that currently offer Family Medical Leave Insurance are California and New Jersey and both have temporary disability insurance programs. She said the task established by the bill would investigate ways for Connecticut to set up a program from scratch.

The task force would look at how the insurance would be funded, who would be covered, and how it would be administered. Younger said the advocates have no idea what the system would look like, they just know they need to start asking the questions and fashioning a solution.

Younger and Department of Labor Commissioner Sharon Palmer testified that their offices field hundreds of phone calls from Connecticut residents about Family Medical Leave, and that number has risen over the past year.

Typically, it’s men who call and say their wife is about to go on FMLA to have a baby “and what’s that pool of money that we can live on while she’s out of work,” Younger said. “FMLA preserves the fact that she will have a job when she gets back in six to eight weeks, but for now you have to save all of your vacation time, if you have access to that.”

And that’s for a planned maternity leave. Younger said there are many reasons someone may have to leave the workforce with little notice because they’ve gotten sick or a loved one has gotten sick.

Christine Stuart photo

According to the AARP, 711,000 family caregivers in Connecticut gave 465 million hours of free home care worth $5.8 billion in 2009. The task of caring for a sick family member often falls to women and these days women often find themselves caring for their parents and their own children at the same time in life.

Younger said the greatest number of people migrating back into the state are residents 85 years and older who are returning to Connecticut to live with their children or family members.

“We have to have a means to support their economic security,” Younger said. “This is about long-term economic security for families.”

The Connecticut Association for Human Services cited a number of statistics:

-more than 40 percent of bankruptcies are a result of lost wages because of serious illness;
-the average worker over the age of 50 who leaves the workforce to take care of a loved one will lose $300,000 in wages and retirement income, and;
-13 percent of families with a new infant become poor within a month.

“Connecticut has a history of trend-setting policies that support families,” Gilchrest said. “We proposed FMLA three years before the federal government and served as an impetus for change.”