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Democrats propose paid medical, family leave for Arizona workers

“Paid family leave shouldn’t be a luxury."

By TJ L'Heureux, Phoenix New Times

Democratic lawmakers in the Arizona Legislature filed bills on Tuesday that would guarantee better access to paid medical and family leave for workers.

The Arizona Thriving Families Act, written in partnership with the Arizona Center for Empowerment and Living United for Change in Arizona, was introduced by Sen. Juan Mendez of Tempe as SB 1632 and Rep. Stephanie Stahl Hamilton of Tucson as HB 2715.

The legislation comes as Democrats, looking ahead to the November elections, focus their aim on economic policies that benefit working and middle-class Arizona families crunched by high costs of living. But the bills face an uncertain future in a legislature controlled by Republicans.

“It’s a sink or swim approach to people here where, if they’re doing well, they have tax cuts for them, let’s cut red tape for you if you’re doing well,” Mendez told Phoenix New Times. “But as soon as you’re falling behind, they look at ways to blame my constituents like it’s their fault. It fits into their whole mind frame that we’re not working hard enough.”

Starting in 2027, the bill provides up to 24 weeks per year of paid leave for workers facing serious illness, caring for sick family members, adopting a child or experiencing a family member called to active military duty. Pregnant women and people receiving inpatient medical care would receive up to 26 weeks.

Under the legislation, the benefit would be between $100 and $1,000 per week with the rates adjusted annually. The legislation bars employers from retaliating against employees for taking the leave. The paid leave would be funded by employer and employee payroll contributions beginning in 2026.

HB 2715 received a first reading in the House on Thursday and was assigned to three committees.

Thirteen states and the District of Columbia offer mandatory paid family leave, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center. Federal law requires companies with more than 50 employees to provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave to workers caring for a new child or seriously ill family member or when recovering from a serious illness.

Sick and struggling

On Monday, Mendez and other lawmakers supporting the legislation brought LUCHA members onto the floor of the Senate as guests. They shared stories of their challenges dealing with sick family members and struggling to make ends meet.

Gina Mendez, organizing director for ACE and LUCHA, told the group about her 65-year-old mother who has to continue to work to pay for medical care. Even when Mendez’s mother injured her arm at one of her two jobs, she couldn’t stop working.

“She has to worry about paying for medication, paying her bills. She has diabetes, and one of her bills cost $500. And she’s like, ‘I gotta go to work.’ People shouldn’t have to go through that,” Mendez said. “For her and my dad, working two jobs was not enough.”

Mendez's father died in 2020, two weeks after he was diagnosed with cancer. She said family members didn’t get to spend enough time with him because they had to work.

“That’s why we need paid family medical leave — in case of crises when they need to be there with their families,” Mendez said. “That’s why we’re here today.”

Christian Tarver, a volunteer with LUCHA, said his mother worked two jobs, as a barber and at UnitedHealthcare. She got sick when he was 14.

“She couldn’t work or anything, so when I got to high school, I had to step in to work and make sure we had a roof above our head,” said Tarver, now 22. He told New Times he hopes to go to college but currently can’t afford it.

‘What we’re asking for is dignity’

Maribel Ponce, one of the guests on the Senate floor, discussed the three jobs she works.

“There have to be just and reasonable changes," she said.

“We see it in the streets. There are people who can’t pay for an apartment or have their own space. I have three jobs,” Ponce added. “They just informed us that this year they’re reducing our hours. So, this makes me very sad that they’re reducing our hours when the money we’re making isn’t enough to pay for a basic basket of food.”

Juan Mendez, who also joined the group in the Senate chamber, shared the story of his family losing its house in 2010 as his brother struggled with mental illness.

“I don’t understand how we have a government that doesn’t want us to be successful. I remember just wanting to not feel like I was drowning. I just wanted to be able to rest a little bit," the lawmaker said.

“We’re asking for a little bit. What we’re asking for is dignity,” Mendez added.

Rep. Lorena Austin, a Democrat representing Mesa, said the legislature would benefit from more lawmakers who have experienced financial hardships.

“We could use more representation of people who really know what it’s like to endure some of the things or at least empathize,” Austin said. “I have been working two to three jobs since I can remember, I lived in Section 8 housing, the gamut, so I really believe that people making the laws should at least understand how to at least fill out an application for something.”

The mother of Lena Avalos, policy director at ACE and LUCHA, spoke about not being able to take leave from work while the family's grandmother contracted COVID-19 and died in 2020.

“Paid family leave shouldn’t be a luxury,” Avalos said. “It should be something we all have access to. And that’s why we’re here.”

Despite the legislation's murky future in the Legislature, supporters said their hopes for paid leave are not diminished.

“Ultimately, we’re here enjoying the fight of bringing paid family leave to Arizona. And there’s joy in the fight,” said Avalos, who invited Ponce to dance with her, albeit briefly, on the Senate floor.

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