With the threat of a ballot fight hanging over the hearing room and with more than half of House and Senate members in support, workers, business owners and economists called on lawmakers Tuesday to implement a paid family and medical leave program in Massachusetts.
Filed by Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Karen Spilka and Rep. Ken Gordon, the bills create an insurance program making workers eligible for paid leave to recover from a serious illness or injury, care for a sick or injured family member or care for a new child.
The two bills differ in areas — maximum weekly benefit is set at $650 under Gordon’s bill and $1,000 in Spilka’s — but both call for the leave to be financed at least in part by employer contributions and to allow employers to require that workers contribute up to 50 percent of the premium cost. Rep. Antonio Cabral also filed a proposal (H 3134) to establish a leave program.
“Paid leave is simply a common sense benefit that workers in nearly every single other country of the world have access to. Papua New Guinea and the United States are about alone in this avenue of not having paid family leave,” Spilka said.
The South American country of Suriname is the third country that does not have a paid family or medical leave law.
“What this program does is it allows the employee who goes out on leave to withdraw from a fund that is created from premiums that are paid into the program,” Gordon said. “The employer then is relieved of the responsibility of the payroll for that worker out on leave and the employer can then hire someone else or extend shifts of current employees to make up that time.”
California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington and New York have passed paid family leave insurance laws, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families. New York’s law, the most recent, was enacted in 2016 and takes effect in 2018. Washington D.C. also passed a paid leave law this year, with the policy set to take effect in July 2020.
In each state, the leave program is funded through employee payroll deductions or insurance contributions, a significant departure from the employer-funded proposals in Massachusetts.
Randy Albelda, an economist at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, said that she and Northeastern University economist Alan Clayton-Matthews developed a simulator that estimated that the Gordon bill would cost a total of $560 million — or 0.355 percent of the total payroll of all covered employees — and that the Spilka bill would cost a total of $786 million — or 0.498 percent of payroll.
Business advocacy groups opposed the bills, arguing the program would be too costly to employers and could inflict unintended harm upon small businesses.
“This cost will be significant as the proposal calls for Massachusetts to adopt the most generous leave program in the country in terms of wage reimbursement rate and duration of benefits. No state comes near a wage reimbursement rate of 90 percent of an employee’s average weekly wage and the proposed length of benefits far exceed the duration of leave required under any of the other four state programs — double or triple the duration of benefits depending on the state,” Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said. “In addition to the expected compliance cost, imposing such a lengthy duration of protected leave would also result in unintended operational burdens for Massachusetts employers.”
The Associated Industries of Massachusetts, a pro-business lobbying powerhouse on Beacon Hill, sent the committee written testimony opposing the bills as “not reasonable or manageable.”
“We agree with the proponents of these bills that Massachusetts’ citizens need to balance the needs of work and family,” John Regan, AIM’s executive vice president for government affairs, said in written testimony. His testimony continued, “However, we do not agree, and do not believe, that the legislation before you is a reasonable, manageable, or affordable approach to address those needs, either from an employee or employer perspective.”
Though business groups represented the opposition, at least one business organization testified in support of the bills, and said paid family and medical leave makes good business sense.
“Paid leave has the support of our members for two reasons. First, paid family and medical leave is the right thing to do. Second, paid family and medical leave is good for business,” Jesse Mermell, president of the Alliance for Business Leadership, said. “There are a multitude of reasons, but they roughly break down into two categories: competitive advantage and cost savings.”
The issue was not on the priority list of Democratic legislative leaders last session until the tail end of formal sessions. The Senate passed a paid family and medical leave bill on July 30, the second-to-last day of formal sessions for the year. The House did not take up the issue last session.
“The difference since last session is we have additional partners and additional stakeholders,” Cabral said Tuesday.
Behind the push for paid family and medical leave in the Bay State is Raise Up Massachusetts, a coalition of organizations that successfully pushed for an increase in the minimum wage and led a successful ballot initiative in 2014 to ensure access to earned sick time for all workers.
Bills seeking to implement paid family and medical leave in Massachusetts have come before the Legislature for years — Cabral said he first filed legislation in 2005 and Spilka said her first such bill was filed in 2006. Senate President Stanley Rosenberg suggested late last month that supporters could seek to implement paid family and medical leave through a ballot question if the Legislature does not act this session.
“I am hopeful that the legislature will take this question up during this term and get it to the Governor’s desk,” Rosenberg wrote during a question-and-answer session on Facebook last month. “If we fail to do so, I expect there will be a ballot question putting this matter into the hands of voters. It would be far better to do it in the legislature than the ballot.”
Raise Up Massachusetts spokesman Steve Crawford told the News Service the coalition is focused first on establishing paid family and medical leave through the Legislature but has not ruled out going to the ballot.
“We’re looking at all our options,” he said Tuesday.
By Colin A. Young