Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie photo
Sen. Julie Kushner and Rep. Robyn Porter (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie photo)

HARTFORD, CT — It’s the fifth year the Connecticut General Assembly is discussing the creation of a paid Family Medical Leave Trust Fund and the chances it will pass this year were improved by the results of the 2018 election.

The Democratic Party expanded its majority in both chambers and Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont has said he supports the creation of the program, which would deduct 0.5 percent of pay from every working person’s paycheck.

The battle this year will be over implementation details.

Lamont, who testified in favor of similar legislation last year as a candidate, has not embraced all the components of the program advocates have been pushing. He declined to say that he would support allowing employees to receive 100 percent of their salary capped at $1,000 per week. This year’s bill would require employers with only one employee to participate and offers up to 12 weeks of paid leave.

CLICK TO VOTE ON 2019 SB 1: An Act Concerning Paid Family And Medical Leave

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Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, said they have not seen Lamont’s proposal yet and declined to speculate on specifics.

Eric Gjede, vice president of government affairs for the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, testified that wage replacement for most programs averages 65 to 75 percent.

The weekly benefit is 80 percent of salary in Massachusetts, capped at $850 per week.

In 2017, the Connecticut Office of Fiscal Analysis estimated that there were 1,587,400 employees that would be covered by the proposal. There are currently 3,129 employers with 950,117 employees covered by existing FMLA law, according to the report.

The legislation this year seeks to raise $420 million a year, or $35 million a month, and employees would have to contribute to the fund for a year before being able to access its benefits. It also requires about $13.6 million in start-up costs, and about $18 million a year in operating expenses.

CLICK TO VOTE ON 2019 HB 5003: An Act Implementing A Paid Family Medical Leave Program

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Opponents of the proposal, mostly small business owners, included Wendy Traub, owner of Hemlock Directional Boring in Torrington.

“Each of our eight employees, including myself and my husband, have specific jobs, and some require specialized training and government certifications,” Traub said. “It’s not like someone can just fill the void and pick up a horizontal drill or properly pump mud. We care for our employees and accommodate it when they need leave, but my husband works day and night to fill in when they are away. This extreme cookie-cutter mandate will severely impact smaller businesses like ours.”

Andrew Markowski, state director of NFIB in Connecticut, said it’s easy for larger corporations to offer paid leave because they have other employees who can fill the void.

But it “will become an impossible circumstance for most small businesses,” Markowski said.

Gjede said they recently surveyed their membership on the issue, and “people are actually terrified by this bill.” The concerns, according to Gjede, have only grown over the past few weeks.

Even though employers would not have to contribute to the fund, Gjede said they would still have to administer the program and that will require hiring additional staff in some cases.

Home health agencies also are opposed to the legislation.

Deborah Hoyt, president and CEO of the Connecticut Association for Healthcare at Home, said these agencies employ 20,000 nurses, therapists, and other professionals who help save the state money by helping patients stay in their homes.

She said many of the association’s member agencies already provide their own form of paid leave and should be allowed to continue to operating those programs.

Under the legislation the current programs offered by private employers could still exist, but all employees would still need to participate in the state program.

Republican Senate Leader Len Fasano didn’t dismiss the idea of a paid leave program Thursday, but he didn’t embrace it either.

Fasano said he’s concerned about how the “ongoing administrative costs” of the program will be paid.

If the administrative costs were covered by the payroll tax on employees then he still might not be able to support it because it doesn’t resolve his other concerns.

Fasano said he would like to see the wage replacement rate reduced as well from 100 percent to something around 66 percent, the same as workers’ compensation.

“There’s a lot of question marks on the economics of this,” Fasano said.

Proponents disagree.

Connecticut is now surrounded by states that offer some version of paid Family and Medical Leave.

Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, said she spent a lot of time talking to voters and small business owners about the legislation and what she found was that employees who need the time are going to take it regardless of whether a program is in place.

“They just simply don’t get paid,” Kushner said.

She said this is a way for small businesses to provide a benefit to their employees that they might not have been able to offer.

Lindsay Farrell, executive director of the Working Families Party, said there are ways for small companies and organizations like her own to accommodate the leave. Farrell has been on maternity twice in the last four years.

“Please stop treating us like a liability,” Farrell said. “We are part of the workforce. We are here to get our jobs done and there are ways to accommodate it.”