When Family Emergencies Strike: Contractors and employees can work together to develop paid family leave solutions

By Claire Swedberg | Feb 15, 2024
people in the hospital
Anyone balancing a family and a job has experienced days when both make demands at the same time.




Anyone balancing a family and a job has experienced days when both make demands at the same time. When family challenges become a priority, workers may need support from their company—to know that their job is safe and, in some cases, their income will continue. These events include sick children, ailing parents or spouses, injuries and maternity or paternity leave.

In the absence of a nationwide, public framework for paid family and medical leave, employers must make their own choices related to what types of paid leave policies to offer, and to which employees.  


According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), by March 2023, 27% of private workers had access to paid family leave, and 90% were offered unpaid family leave, meaning they were guaranteed a job when they returned. That’s up 12% from 2013.

For the construction industry, the numbers may be somewhat lower. As of 2023, only 16% of companies provided some kind of paid leave time for their workers. While this statistic is also up from 4% a decade ago, the reasons for the disparity between construction and other industries may be multifold.

Some workers may be classified as independent contractors, paid “off the books” or already covered under a collective bargaining agreement, said Karen Burke, knowledge advisor for the Society for Human Resource Management, Alexandria, Va. Data from the National Compensation Survey indicate that low-paid workers are less likely to have access to paid leave than those with higher pay.

Paid leave also depends on the company’s location. Nationally, paid family leave options are relatively limited. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides rights for unpaid leave only and is limited to some employees. 

However, the fact remains that the number of workers with some kind of coverage is on the rise. Some states currently have public programs in effect that supply paid family or medical leave. So far, 15 states and the District of Columbia have passed programs or legislation that are live now, Burke said. 

In the absence of a national, public framework for paid family and medical leave, employers must make their own choices related to what types of paid leave policies to offer, and to which employees. Depending on where their companies do business, contractors have options related to how much support they can and should (or even must) provide.

Washington is leading one effort that allows workers to gain leave pay even if they don’t have to use it. The state has updated its paid sick leave law, Burke explained, to require employers of construction workers to pay out accrued but unused sick leave upon termination of employment.

“This may start a trend for other states to see how they can apply the same, or similar, treatment to their paid family leave laws, for this group of workers,” she said.

Advantages of Paid Family Leave

There are unquestionable benefits to offering paid family leave for employers and employees. In a poll by the Center for Business and Social Justice, 61% of adults who plan to move in the next two years say they would be more likely to move to a state with a paid leave program.

Additionally, 40% say they would be less likely to move to a state without one. 

Paid leave is one of the top three policies people prioritize in considering a state for relocation, and it is the top concern for millennial and Gen Z workers. According to the Center for Business and Social Justice poll, even when paid family and medical leave are not legally mandated in the state, 73% of adults agree that companies should provide it.

The reasons are numerous. Workers gain improved financial, emotional and workplace well-being when they know their employer will support them if life makes demands on their time.

“People want to work for a company that cares about [its] employees,” said Keith Wheeler, president and chief human resources officer at HR Resources of the Carolinas. That may be especially true in jobs where an employee’s focus can be a matter of preventing accidents or injury. 

“Employee well-being really can impact safety,” he said. 

Those in electrical construction could be uniquely at risk if they work while distracted. 

“Looking at our employees’ well-being and especially the financial well-being of an employee is important at this point,” he said.

Finding Affordable Options

Despite the benefits, not every business can afford to provide paid family leave. Typically, larger firms offer such programs, while smaller companies face more challenges. Many just don’t have the capital to offer a full salary to those who experience problems at home and aren’t working on-site. 

Mid-sized and smaller contractors are going to be among those least able to bear the cost of such benefits. They might be unable to pay someone who isn’t helping provide revenue. Alternatively, they may have other employees who can step in and fill those shoes.

While each business offers its own level of support and structure for life emergencies or events, the most successful companies communicate with their employees about exactly what they offer and why. 

That means being creative with what they offer and how it is allocated. The offering needs to be something that doesn’t cripple the organization but protects employees, Wheeler noted. While each business offers its own levels of support and structure for life emergencies or events, the most successful companies communicate with their employees about exactly what they offer and why. Paid leave doesn’t necessarily have to mean full pay. Compromises can include offering two-thirds or half pay, or other ways to provide employees some type of financial support or alleviate a level of financial pressure. 

Cross-Training to Compensate

Every employer needs to know that if one worker, even a manager, steps away from the job, the rest of the crew can fill that vacuum. That means companies gain from providing cross-training and support. Contractors that experience the least disruption have often developed their teams with cross-training, so that no one employee is the sole keeper of any particular knowledge or skill.

The culture of the organization can determine how much a worker’s absence affects productivity. If the company provides transparency and trust—and prepares for the personal life events that can affect anyone—they’re ready when someone takes leave.

Company owners putting a new family leave policy in place that’s not driven by state mandates may need help navigating the wide variety of requirements within their area. They may seek support from an HR company that covers their region. 

“The goal is to ensure contractors don’t run afoul of some of the regulations and guidelines that can happen in the states,” Wheeler said.

Varying Options By State

In states that are already deploying paid family leave programs, employers still face some decisions. These states have programs at varying stages, and the number of weeks available in each state varies as well. For instance, while the baseline is often 12 weeks, there’s some variability based on company size, said Cassandra Gomez, senior staff attorney at A Better Balance, New York, which advocates for work-­family justice.

Many programs are set up as social insurance, with workers and employers each chipping in a small contribution on a weekly basis. In that way, neither party bears the full expense, Gomez said. 

The idea is that the program should not be overly consequential for any particular employer, she said. For those companies too small to pay for a formal paid family leave benefit, there are other options in participating states. The social insurance program makes such offerings more affordable. The point, Gomez said, is to have such a plan in place to “allow employers and employees to breathe a little easier with the cost of the programs being aggregated.” 

Often, such programs roll paid family and medical leave together so workers have an option to tap into either or both when something happens at home. In most of the programs, individuals who have earned money during the last four or five quarters are eligible for benefits when they apply to a state program.

When it comes to keeping work on track, Gomez pointed out that companies with paid family and medical leave programs in place have typically been able to reallocate the work amongst other workers. Another option is to hire a temporary employee. 

“Overall, we’ve seen that the reallocation of work and others stepping in has been has been really helpful,” she said. 

From a legal standpoint, workers have a few options, even if there isn’t a state program available. They have rights under the FMLA in some cases, and employers stand to gain by understanding what those are.

Every year since 2017, with the exception of 2021, there’s been at least one new state paid family and medical leave law enacted. These statewide programs have been popular, Gomez said, and can be expected to continue growing. 

“They’re popular amongst workers, they’re popular amongst voters and states know that they also are a really good attracting factor for getting new workers to move to a state,” she said.

Workers who take part in paid family leave programs still have some mobility. If they are paying for a percentage of their own coverage, the systems are designed to follow them to other locations if they move. 

“While these laws are very much state by state, to some degree, in the vast majority of cases family and medical leave rights are portable with the workers,” Gomez said. 

That means that if the worker has paid into the program, they’ll typically still have access to it, even if they switch jobs.

“Usually what we see is workers have to meet a small financial eligibility requirement,” she said. 

From that point forward, regardless of how long they’ve worked for the employer, they can access the program when they need it. / Jacob Lund / Gorodenkoff

About The Author

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at [email protected].





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