Paid family leave debate has shifted

It is a near certainty that the Connecticut legislature will pass a paid family medical leave bill this year and that the governor will sign it. The question is what the details will look like. Groups that have opposed the proposal in the past need to recognize that reality and adjust their strategy accordingly.

Democrats running for state office in 2018, from the governor’s race down, were near unanimous in their support for enacting paid family leave legislation. The intent of such laws is to assure that money keeps coming in when a worker takes leave to deal with a serious health issue, a birth, or to provide caregiving to a family member.

Voters elected Ned Lamont, vocal in his support of family leave, as their governor and the Democrats substantially increased their majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives. They have a mandate to enact such legislation, which polls consistently show has strong support.

A 2016 Connecticut AARP poll, for example, found 83 percent supported, and 65 percent strongly supported, paid family leave.

Proposed legislation would impose a .5 percent payroll tax on all employees, no matter how much or little they make. The money would go into a Family Medical Leave Trust Fund to pay workers on leave and cover administrative costs.

The program would cover all employees, regardless of how small the business for which they work. Employees could take up to 12 weeks within a 12 month period, required to document the issue necessitating the leave. Employees would get 100 percent of weekly earnings, capped at $1,000.

The legislation anticipates raising $420 million annually. Critics have questioned the math, saying claims will exceed resources, requiring a higher tax to sustain it. The Connecticut Business and Industry Association, for example, notes a person earning $52,000 a year would only contribute $260 annually but would be eligible to receive $12,000 in a year.

Connecticut would become only the fifth state — the others are California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New York and Washington — to mandate paid family leave. Connecticut’s plan, under the proposed legislation, would be among the most worker friendly.

Paid family leave makes sense. Individuals and families should not be tossed into fiscal crisis because they have medical issues or need time to help someone who does. People should not have to choose between keeping a job or caring for a family member.

But the legislature is better off taking a conservative approach, passing a law that is on firm financial footing, one that provides greater confidence those lawmakers won’t quickly be returning to Connecticut workers demanding higher taxes to sustain the program.

The focus should be helping people get by, not providing dollar for dollar compensation. Perhaps guarantee 100 percent of earnings for the first $400 of pay, meaning lower wage earners would not face a cut they could not afford, while providing 66 percent of earnings above $400. Lower the cap to $850 weekly.

If the trust fund becomes flush with cash, benefits could then be expanded.

Under the proposed legislation, state and municipal union employees would be able to opt out of the program if they can negotiate a better deal in their labor contracts. Give private employers the same choice. If a business can provide employees with an equal or a better plan using private insurance, at no greater cost to their workers, allow them to opt out and not have to make the payroll deduction to the trust fund. The New York law provides this option.

Rather than fighting a losing cause, business interests should focus on lobbying for a paid family policy that is workable and sustainable, because some form of the law is going to pass.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

 

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