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October 28, 2015

Family and medical leave supporters: Mass. out of step

Colin A. Young/SHNS Damali Simmonds testified before the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development in support of paid family and medical leave. In her lap is her daughter, six-month-old Malia.

Relaying personal stories of hardship caused by the birth of a baby, a sick family member or an illness, dozens of people on Tuesday pushed lawmakers to support a bill that would extend paid family and medical leave to most employees in Massachusetts.

The bill (H 1718 and S 1008) would make employees eligible for up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave to recover from a significant illness or injury, to care for a seriously ill family member or to care for a newborn child.

"It is a struggle to take care of a baby who needs our undivided attention, emotionally and physically," said Damali Simmonds, a Boston woman who testified with her six-month-old daughter, Malia, on her lap. "The first few months after a child is born are an essential bonding time between parent and child. The absence of a paid family leave policy adds more stress to an already stressful situation."

Right now, about 40 percent of Massachusetts workers are not eligible for family and medical leave through the federal Family and Medical Leave Act because they work for companies with fewer than 50 employees, according to the office of Sen. Karen Spilka, who sponsored the Senate bill, and for many people unpaid leave is financially not viable.

The bill "would allow all workers in the Commonwealth to enjoy some of the same common sense benefits that workers in every other industrialized country have the benefit of receiving," Spilka told the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development on Tuesday. "Mainly, workers would not have to choose between a paycheck and caring for a child or a sick family member."

Under the legislation, employees who have worked at least 1,250 hours for their employer would be able to take up to 12 weeks of leave and would be eligible for a temporary disability benefit equal to a percentage of his or her average weekly wages, capped at $1,000 per week.

The partial wage replacement benefits would be paid out of a Family and Employment Security Trust Fund that would be created by the bill, and would be administered by a new Division of Family and Medical Leave in the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development.

Employers that do not offer equivalent benefits on their own would be required to make contributions to the trust fund -- at a rate to be determined by the new division -- to secure paid leave for their employees.

The bill also prohibits employer retaliation against workers who take time off under these conditions.

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 bill, if it becomes law, would spur an increase of about 16,000 leaves per year across the state -- an increase of about 3.6 percent.

And the annual cost of the program, according to the simulator, would be $495 million, Albelda said.

"If you average that costs across all covered employees, the annual cost is $160 per worker or just a weekly cost of just over $3 a week, which I believe is less than a latte," Albelda said. "So a latte a week can buy a lot."

According to Spilka, the United States is in the company of Suriname and Papua New Guinea as the only three industrialized nations in the world that does not have paid family or medical leave.

Sen. Daniel Wolf, a committee co-chair and co-sponsor of the legislation, at one point during the hearing told attendees how much paid family or medical leave other nations offer, including "that bastion of human rights, Saudi Arabia," where employees are entitled to 14 weeks of leave.

"There is no one to testify against it, you can see why," Wolf said later, as he pointed out that no one opposed to the bill had signed up to testify Tuesday. "You do have to ask yourself how it's possible in Massachusetts in 2015 that we're even having this dialogue."

Though they may not have testified at Tuesday's hearing, business groups did register their opposition to the paid family or medical leave bill.

"The proposals before you are expensive for employers and will have a disparate impact on small businesses," Bill Vernon, director of the National Federation of Independent Business in Massachusetts, wrote in testimony he provided to the News Service. "The impact on a small business' productivity would be extreme, the impact on the remaining employees forced to take up the work of the missing worker is significant. The financial cost to the employer and to the small business entity is substantial."

Associated Industries of Massachusetts also opposed the bill, posing several questions the group says lawmakers must get clarity on before considering the legislation.

Though some business groups may be against the idea of paid family or medical leave, Rep. Kenneth Gordon said it would actually help Massachusetts companies compete with those in California, which along with New Jersey and Rhode Island has already approved similar legislation and offers paid family and medical sick leave "as a matter of law."

"The problem that we face is that companies based in California are coming in to recruit graduates from our great colleges and universities, they can offer paid family and medical leave in California and they can pay that through a trust fund," Gordon said. "Whereas our companies, to provide the same benefit have to provide it on their own, and that is a competitive disadvantage."

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 last year to ensure access to earned sick time for all workers.

The paid leave issue has emerged during a session that has already seen the Legislature take action on a number of worker-friendly bills. Last week, the Senate voted to expand the scope of workplace disfigurement injuries covered under workers' compensation policies and to strengthen the attorney general's efforts to enforce wage and hour violations by allowing her office to file a civil action for injunctive relief.

Supporters of paid family or medical leave said Tuesday that the policy would be a continuation of the work to establish a safety net for all citizens that they have been engaged in for years.

"That safety net, we built it last year when the voters voted for earned sick time and almost a million people got 40 hours or five days to care for themselves or sick family members," Lew Finfer, co-chair of Raise Up Massachusetts, said. "And now we're talking about how do we care for ourselves and ill family members when there is very serious illness requiring months of care."

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