HARTFORD, CT—It’s the number one priority of Democratic leadership in the state Senate this year, which gives lawmakers and advocates who support it hope.
This year’s paid Family and Medical Leave bill will be up for debate at a public hearing today, but advocates weren’t wasting any time Wednesday trying to get lawmakers’ attention. They were handing out cupcakes and Valentine’s reminding them why the issue is so important.
But some lawmakers didn’t need any convincing.
Rep. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, said four years ago he was diagnosed with cancer and as a lawmaker he was able to take paid leave. He said he believes that ability should be extended to everyone.
“Many families across the state have to choose between caring for their child or being able to afford their mortgage payment or their rent,” Lesser said. “I think that’s a really tough choice and I think that’s really bad for economic security for families across the state.”
Currently, employers are mandated to give employees Family and Medical Leave under state and federal law, but it’s generally unpaid.
“This is an issue that really matters,” Lesser said.
He pointed out that the proposal is funded with contributions from employees so it wouldn’t “cost employers a penny.”
However, the Connecticut Business and Industry Association isn’t on board.
Eric Gjede, counsel for CBIA, said there are start up and administrative costs to the state associated with the legislation.
The Office of Fiscal Analysis estimated last year that implementing a similar paid Family and Medical Leave program would cost anywhere between $13.6 million in 2017 and $18.9 million in 2018 to operate through the Department of Labor. That fiscal note ultimately doomed the bill.
“It’s a bad deal for taxpayers,” Gjede said. “ And it’s a bad deal for businesses because we have to continue to provide non-wage benefits to employees who are out of the workplace up to 12 weeks, every single year.”
He said it’s also bad for employees who are asked to contribute a substantial amount from their weekly paychecks to a fund they may never need to access.
Lindsay Farrell, executive director of the Working Families Party, said what’s not affordable is for an employee to lose their job if they get sick or have to care for a loved one. She said even those making $10 an hour have expressed support for the proposal because it gives them peace of mind.
But Farrell also pointed out that Connecticut will need to create a paid Family and Medical Leave system if it wants to compete for jobs.
“This policy is already in place in Rhode Island and in New Jersey. It’s being implemented in New York. It’s under consideration in Massachusetts,” Farrell said. “If Connecticut does not take action to create our own paid Family and Medical Leave program we will lose even more workers and families to our neighboring states.”
There’s also a concern among some that the state would not be responsible with the fund.
“Giving it to the state, you can’t guarantee it’s going to be there for you in the future,” Gjede said.
This year’s bill doesn’t spell out yet exactly how the legislation would work, but it’s expected to be fashioned after last year’s proposal, Catherine Bailey, legal and public policy director for the CT Women’s Education and Legal Fund, said.
Bailey, who heads the Campaign for Paid Family Leave, a coalition of over 60 organizations, said last year’s proposal would deduct about 0.5 percent of weekly earnings from an employee’s paycheck. That money would then go to a fund administered by the Department of Labor and workers would be able to access 100 percent of their pay up to $1,000 for 12 weeks of leave as necessary.
Lesser said the number of weeks and the amount employees set aside as part of their paycheck is still something they can have a conversation about.
“It’s about peace of mind,” Lesser added. “It’s knowing you don’t have to go into poverty to have a child or take care of an aging parent.”
A spokeswoman for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said he’s supportive of the concept, but thinks it should happen at the federal level.
“While we strongly support the goals of a paid family and medical leave program, the reality is this a very complex and expensive program to develop from the ground up,” Meg Green, a spokeswoman for Malloy, said. “States like Connecticut need the support of the federal government in establishing paid leave programs. President Trump ran on this issue, yet instead of focusing his efforts on meaningful policy that would benefit every American, he is wasting our time hawking hasty and unconstitutional executive orders.”