Ben Verhoeven, center, owner of Peoria Gardens (working with his employee, Elizabeth Peña), gives his employees 12 weeks of paid family leave. Photo by Samuel Wilson

By Merry MacKinnon

No Oregon law requires it, but Albany farmer Ben Verhoeven gives all 25 of his employees paid parental leave.

“We’re a second-generation family farm and we support families,” said Verhoeven, 35, whose greenhouse, Peoria Gardens Inc., offers workers up to 12 weeks of employer-funded leave at full pay for the birth or adoption of a child.

He took paid leave from his own business when his two children were born. But Verhoeven would also like to see a state-supported family and medical insurance program in Oregon.

Paid, protected caretaking leave isn’t just good for families, said Verhoeven, but makes good business sense, too.

“As a farmer, I know I’m not alone in this,” he said. “Oregon competes nationally for labor, and if our neighbors to the north and south offer paid leave and we don’t, we’re losing out on valuable employees.”

In 2020, Washington will join California, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island, the only states that provide workers with paid family and medical leave.

In Oregon, however, such caretaking leave is left to the discretion of employers and is not mandated by the state.
AARP Oregon supports the creation of a paid state family and medical leave insurance program.

“Many caregivers who work full-time jobs struggle to make ends meet and simply cannot afford to take unpaid leave,” said Jon Bartholomew, AARP Oregon government relations director.

“AARP is fighting for paid family leave in Oregon because we believe family caregivers should not have to choose between taking care of Mom or Dad or losing a paycheck, or even risk losing their job,” said Bartholomew.

Haves and have-nots
Many companies with higher-income and white-collar employees guarantee benefits like paid family and medical leave, but most employers with largely lower-income workers do not, said Oregon House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson (D-Portland), who cochairs a group tasked with making paid-family-leave policy recommendations for the 2019 legislative session.

“The people who are most economically vulnerable—the people who need the financial stability promised by paid family and medical leave the most—are the ones who currently have the least access to it,” Williamson said.

“Too many Oregonians are forced to make impossible choices when it comes to caring for a new child or a seriously ill family member,” she said.

The work group, composed of legislators, advocates and industry representatives, has met regularly since January but has not reached consensus.

AARP Oregon coordinates with other advocates in the work group, though it’s not a member.

While it’s too early to describe specific legislation, Williamson said, “We are looking at other states, like Washington, as models for success.”

Nearly 470,000 family caregivers in Oregon take care of an adult relative, spouse or friend, according to a 2015 AARP report. The value of this unpaid care is worth more than $5.7 billion each year. Other older adults are looking after their children or grandchildren.

“Most are doing so without basic workplace protections,” Bartholomew said.

Merry MacKinnon is a writer living in Portland.