Family and medical leave benefits under state and federal programs provide job protection to many workers in Massachusetts, but the laws fall short for many when it comes to longer-term leave.
The Federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which covers workers in firms of more than 50 employees, and the Massachusetts Parental Leave Law that covers firms with six or more employees, both protect workers’ jobs. Both laws, however, provide no replacement for wages (though the Massachusetts law guarantees accrued sick time), so long-term protections are very limited.
A pair of bills in the Legislature, which will be discussed in a hearing today on Beacon Hill, could extend worker protection dramatically with a plan that relies on workers and employers to contribute equally to a disability insurance trust fund. At an average cost of $3.44 per week, workers and employees both benefit by splitting that amount.
A UMass Boston study from 2016 found that about 1 in 8 Massachusetts workers annually will need an extended leave for family and/or medical reasons. Besides the benefit to the worker — who won’t have to rely on vacation, holiday or sick days to avoid the loss of pay when the absence stretches out to weeks — the employer would find lower temporary replacement costs, higher worker morale and retention, and goodwill in the community.
Studies have shown that a similar family leave law in California established 15 years ago keeps new mothers in the workforce, increases parental bonding with new children, supports elder care, improves health of mothers and babies, and promotes economic stability among workers. Smaller businesses that lack the resources to implement paid family leave voluntarily will have another benefit to level the playing field for recruitment and retention, increase loyalty and productivity, and provide stability for financial planning. Importantly, California has found that 91 percent of employers report no suspicion the system is abused by workers.
The two Massachusetts bills — one each from the House and Senate, with minor differences — create the insurance pool with employee and employer contributions to provide paid time off for serious personal or family health issues, care for a new child by birth, foster care or adoption, and family needs arising from a family member’s active duty military service.
Workers can return after their approved leave to the same position status, pay and benefits. Leaves of 12-16 weeks are approved for family issues, 26 weeks for personal medical issues.
The low cost, the mutual benefits, and lack of organized opposition suggest that most stakeholders recognize this important tool that can contribute to a more stable workforce. And that would help make our families, neighborhoods and communities more stable, as well.