Budget adjustments signed into law Tuesday mean the state is on the road to adopting paid family and medical leave, but state leaders disagree about how long the road will be and where it will end.
The budget allocates $140,000 in 2016 to look at how the state should go about implementing a plan that allows workers to earn income while taking time off for illness, to bond with new children, or to care for sick family members.
Carolyn Treiss, executive director of the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, said the passage of paid family and medical leave is no longer a question of “if,” but of “when.”
It’s an open-ended timetable anchored by two dates in the new budget: A consultant — who would evaluate options related to employee contribution, claims processing, staffing and funding opportunities — must be hired by Oct. 1 in order to submit a final report by Feb. 1, 2016.
“Virtually all Connecticut residents will be affected by a medically necessary leave for themselves or their loved ones at some point in their working lives,” Treiss said. “Paid leave is compassionate, practical and good for both employer and employee, and we are grateful to the legislators who supported the bill and this language, which lays out a pathway to get us there.”
But others, like Office of Policy and Management Secretary Ben Barnes and his boss, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, are more equivocal about where the state is heading when it comes to paid family and medical leave.
Barnes said the bill advances the concept of paid family and medical leave, but there’s additional legislative action that will need to occur to implement it fully.
“We believe in it and we were happy to advance the program more,” Barnes said of the language in the budget bill that showed up at the last minute as a surprise to many.
Gov. Malloy said the language gives them time to figure out if it would be “a competitive advantage or a competitive disadvantage.”
Earlier this year, a bill that would give eligible employees up to 12 weeks of paid leave from their jobs was never raised for a vote in either chamber. Under that bill, workers would contribute a percentage of their weekly earnings to a Family and Medical Leave Compensation Trust Fund. In turn, should employees need to take a medical leave to care for themselves or a family member, they would receive 100 percent of their average weekly earnings up to a maximum compensation of $1,000 per week.
State Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, characterized the nation’s lack of support for new mothers in particular as “shameful and an embarrassment.”
According to a 2014 United Nations report analyzing data from 185 countries, only the United States and Papua New Guinea do not offer paid maternity leave.
As an early proponent of paid family and medical leave, Flexer said many people in her eastern Connecticut district have asked her to address the issue in the legislature.
“And as we did on gay marriage and universal access to affordable healthcare, once again Connecticut is leading the way in America on providing paid time off for families to care for a newborn or a sick family member,” Flexer said.
Paid family and medical leave is currently available in Rhode Island, New Jersey, and California, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families. It was authorized in Washington in 2007 but never went into effect because of budget issues.
The issue also is a priority for advocates for the elderly and their caregivers. Nora Duncan, state director for the AARP, said the latest directive from the legislature is a step toward ensuring that the children of elderly parents don’t have to choose between their jobs and their loved ones. She said it makes financial sense to support measures that would make it easier for family caregivers to provide services that end up saving the state money.
“Each year in Connecticut, more than 700,000 family caregivers help keep their aging loved ones independent and out of costly institutions, providing an economic value of approximately $5.8 billion,” Duncan said.
While U.S. President Barack Obama called for paid leave in this year’s State of the Union address, the issue has a tough slog in the Republican-dominated Congress. The Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act was first introduced by U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., in 2013 and reintroduced this year by U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York.
State Rep. Matthew Lesser, D-Middletown, credited DeLauro with helping to advance paid family leave at the state level even though her bill never gained traction in Congress. “Once again we’ve shown that if Congress will not lead on leave, the states will,” Lesser said.
That’s exactly what’s been happening.
Rhode Island instituted temporary caregiver insurance last year. The program pays out approximately 60 percent of an employee’s paycheck, up to a maximum of $770 per week, when time is taken off to bond with a new child or care for a sick family member. The benefit lasts for up to four weeks. The program is paid for through employee deductions at a current withholding rate of 1.2 percent of a worker’s first $64,200 in earnings. An employee would not contribute more than $770.40 per year as of 2015.
In New Jersey, a 2008 law says workers may receive two-thirds of their usual wages up to a maximum of $572 per week for six weeks while taking time off to bond with a newborn or newly adopted child or to provide care for a seriously ill family member. The program, also funded through employee deductions, means that each worker contributes 0.09 percent of a worker’s first $32,000 in earnings. An employee would not contribute more than $28.80 in 2015.
California was the first state to institute paid family leave in 2004.
Christine Stuart contributed to this report.