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feingold and taylor

State Rep. Chris Taylor, left, and former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, third from left, who is running to reclaim his seat from Sen. Ron Johnson, met with constituents on Thursday. The topic of conversation at Cargo Coffee East was paid family leave. Wendy Crabb, far right, retired from REI in March and said updated federal guidelines could help employees and employers in Wisconsin, especially those who work in retail.

Former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold and state Rep. Chris Taylor say they want more paid and flexible time off for families in Wisconsin and nationwide to care for a sick family member, spend time with a new child or recover from an illness.

The pair met with four people Thursday afternoon for a roundtable discussion at Cargo Coffee on East Washington Avenue to listen to the concerns and limitations of the federal and state Family Medical Leave Act, which provides for time off for employees if they meet certain criteria.

“To do nothing has a great cost” for families, said Feingold, a Democrat, who is running to reclaim his former seat against Republican Sen. Ron Johnson in 2016.

Feingold did not say how the expansion of paid time off for families would be paid for at the federal level, but called for a broad expansion, bringing the U.S. up to what other industrialized Western countries provide for their employees, he said.

“It’s better for employers because it leads to happier employees,” he said. “It’s not extreme.”

It’s considered normal, good practice in every other industrialized country in the world, he said.

Feingold said if he’s able to return to the Senate, he will push for a broader federal bill on FMLA. He sought various expansions of the federal Family Medical Leave Act several times when he was in the Senate.

Rep. Taylor is also promoting an updated, paid family leave program in Wisconsin that would act like an insurance plan, she said. Companies would pay into the plan and then take money out to pay for employees who take time off, she said.

Federal provisions and an updated state program can “work hand in hand,” Feingold said.

Updated federal guidelines could help employees and employers in Wisconsin, especially those who work in retail, said Wendy Crabb, of Madison, who worked in management at REI in West Towne Mall for more than 20 years.

Many of her employees didn’t qualify for FMLA benefits, she said, but the company used the federal guidelines as a template for its internal policies. Other progressive companies can do that too, she said.

“They’re using what’s out there as a road map,” said Crabb, who sat in on the roundtable.

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Crabb retired from REI in March, but said the company’s generous paid leave policies helped her take nearly six months off when her sons were born. She was able to stack vacation, disability, sick time and maternity leave so she was paid during her entire time off.

Earlier this year, Republican lawmakers discussed repealing the state version of the Family Medical Leave Act, arguing that it creates a burden for businesses who have to comply with it along with a federal version.

The state’s law preceded the federal version and was first signed by Gov. Tommy Thompson in 1988. President Bill Clinton signed the federal law in 1993.

Business groups in the state have argued that the laws are duplicative and create confusion for business owners. Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce has made repealing Wisconsin’s FMLA a tenet of their 2016 legislative agenda.

Both federal and state leave laws provide for an employee to take unpaid leave to cover the birth of a child, adoption, the placement of a foster child in the home, to care for an immediate family member with a serious illness, or to recover from a personal illness.

Wisconsin’s law expands that criteria to include caring for domestic partners and in-laws. It also allows employees more flexibility when notifying an employer of plans to take leave. Wisconsin employees must give “reasonable notice” while federal law dictates 30 days notice must be given.

Katelyn Ferral is The Cap Times' public affairs and investigative reporter. She joined the paper in 2015 and previously covered the energy industry for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. She's also covered state politics and government in North Carolina.