When a serious medical issue arises, no one should be forced to choose between staying home to recuperate and missing a paycheck, or quickly returning to work and putting their recovery at risk. But when I got seriously ill and didn’t have access to paid family and medical leave, I was faced with this impossible decision.

In 2009, I was working as a mental health professional when I became seriously ill. For six years, I cycled through numerous specialists and countless appointments trying to manage my health, while still working full-time. However, there came a time when I was no longer able to be reliable for my clients and so, for ethical reasons, I made the difficult decision to step away from the mental health sector — but this also meant that I was unable to be a reliable employee in any traditional job situation.

Thanks to my family, I was able to keep a roof over my head and start a small business. This allowed me to set my own hours, but I still was not able to take time away from the business to properly manage my health, and I still had to prioritize health care costs over other necessities, such as groceries and heating oil.

As a small business owner I want to provide access to paid leave, but the business is very small and profit margins are razor-thin, so I can’t afford a private paid leave policy. I’m not alone — many small business owners can’t afford good, affordable policies because we lack the capital and scale to be profitable for most private insurers.

I am the owner of an art gallery and custom framing shop in a small business community that has taken many blows but refuses to stay down. That kind of determination and resilience is the backbone of small businesses everywhere; it contributes to, and relies on, a healthy workforce and a strong local economy. If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is the importance of being able to take time away from work to recover from a serious illness or deal with a major life event — and the devastating costs for small businesses and working families when we can’t take the time that we need.

Every business owner should have the ability to put the well-being of themselves and their employees first without risking their business, and every employee — regardless of how small their employer is — should be able to take time off to care for a newborn child, recover from an illness, or stay home to care for a sick family member. Ensuring staff is healthy and happy is critical to the success of any good business.

Some business groups, including the Maine State Chamber, warn (as their executive vice president Peter Gore did in a presentation to the Maine Paid Family & Medical Leave Commission in the Dec. 7, 2021 meeting) that a comprehensive paid leave program in Maine would put too much of a financial and administrative burden on small businesses, which comprise 99% of all businesses in the state. But most of us can’t afford paid leave now and we — our businesses and our employees — are hurting because of it.

As a small business owner who would be willing to contribute to a state paid leave fund, I view this as a meaningful opportunity for the business community and working Mainers to come together and foster a robust workforce, healthier communities, and a stronger local economy.

Right now, Maine lawmakers have the chance to create a comprehensive paid leave program that is affordable for small business owners and is tailored to the needs of hard-working people in Lewiston and across the entire state. I sincerely hope our Legislature takes the commission’s policy recommendations seriously — Maine’s small business community and the folks who support us desperately need it.

Mary Callahan is the owner of Kimball Street Studios in Lewiston and she is a member of the Maine Small Business Coalition.

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