Why employers must push for legislation to weather coronavirus
Over the past several months during this unprecedented pandemic, we have seen firsthand how employee benefits such as paid leave, income protection and flexible working arrangements are critical to workers across the country. At the same time, we have seen so many hardworking Americans lose access to these benefits altogether as the result of sweeping layoffs taking place across the country. For now, as the nation’s unemployment rate spikes and millions are out of work, much of the focus must be on navigating unemployment benefits and stimulus measures. However, this crisis has brought to the forefront a renewed sense of urgency for employers to take a more inclusive approach to meeting the diverse needs of workers over the long term.
When the chips are down and in the face of great uncertainty, employees and their families’ livelihood often depend on what their employer is offering. So far, we have seen Congress pass emergency paid leave programs for small and medium-sized businesses, which employ over 45% of the U.S. labor force, according to the Census Bureau.
This is an important first step, but there is much more to do in the months to come as employees begin to return to work — and it’s up to business leaders and employers alike to learn from what is happening today and engage policymakers in the dynamics of the workplace.
I’m keenly aware of these dynamics as the workplace benefits company I lead, Unum, focuses on providing employee benefits to our employer customers. Long before the coronavirus pandemic, we saw companies experimenting with benefits like student loan repayment, gym memberships and wellness support programs, and even pet care. But even then, we heard from HR managers that their company policies are not keeping up with the rapidly changing needs of their employees.
Many of our customers tell us that workers of all ages want more of their needs recognized by their employers. Today’s families, 63% of which have two working parents, are short on a critical resource: time. Workers need compensated time off that does not result in undue financial hardship from other economic factors, as child care, health care and housing-related costs continue to outpace wages. In this time of uncertainty, many workers today cannot afford to use more unpaid time off even if it is offered and protected.
Many companies, including ours, added income protection to this idea, providing for paid medical and family leave. Before the coronavirus pandemic, President Trump enacted paid leave for federal employees, giving two million federal workers added flexibility to make the best choices possible for themselves and their families. These are great improvements, but there is still more to do in public policy and in our businesses.
Employers — and their employees — can move the needle by asking our partners in government to act on legislation to facilitate flexible employer leave offerings. Several states have enacted paid leave laws in the past year, and the best among them leverage the expertise and experience of private benefit providers. There is also a need for a permanent policy at the federal level. First, Congress should develop targeted tax incentives so that small businesses and low-wage industries are more likely to offer paid leave benefits, which would help prevent the need for future emergency legislation. Second, let’s modernize and coordinate existing laws to make it easier for small businesses to come together and purchase insurance as a larger group. And third, federal law should pave the way for employers to offer benefits on an automatically enrolled basis. These are the preventative measures that employers know will not only meet the needs of their employees in an epidemic but in the normal course of business.
To help employers ensure that every worker has access, the three policies detailed above would also be complemented by the bipartisan Cassidy-Sinema-Allred-Stefanik plan that would provide at least a minimum level of paid leave benefits.
At Unum, our purpose is to help the working world thrive throughout life’s moments. This becomes even more critical during times of unprecedented crisis, when the need for benefits such as paid leave, income protection and flexible work options are greater than ever. As we weather this storm together and hope for a return to normalcy, we must not lose sight of the importance of inclusive benefits for employees and continue to work to implement them. We intend to do this, and we invite all employers to join us and encourage policymakers to help us make this vision a reality.