HARTFORD, CT —The House approved a controversial bill Friday that creates a Paid Family and Medical Leave program in Connecticut that Gov. Ned Lamont said he would sign.
The bill passed the House, 79-69. Eight Democrats joined Republicans in voting against the measure.
Lamont had said he would veto the bill the Senate passed last week, but he was able to work out his differences through another piece of legislation. The companion bill, which has yet to pass either chamber, will shrink the governing board of the quasi-public authority overseeing the program from 15 to 13 members and allow the governor to select the chairperson.
The companion bill is also supposed to streamline the contracting process, according to a press release from Lamont’s office. Under the new bill, professional staff at the authority will score and award contracts using criteria agreed upon by a two-thirds vote of the board, without a three- or four-month waiting period.
The Department of Labor will not be in charge of administering the program, as was previously proposed.
Those provisions were necessary to win Lamont’s support.
“We all agreed on the need to pass this landmark support for working families so they don’t have to choose between the job they need and the family they love, or their own health,” Lamont said. ” I’m proud to soon sign my name on a piece of legislation that will help ensure this program is a national model and remains solvent for years to come. At the same time, I want to make it clear that while the board will consider both public and private entities for administration, no matter who administers the claims, there will be no profit motive to deny any applicant.”
Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano accused Lamont of “flip-flopping” on the issue.
“The governor has completely abandoned his principles, gone back on his word and cowered to Democrat legislators yet again,” Fasano said. “The ‘deal’ struck does nothing to change the damaging problems with the paid family medical leave bill Gov. Lamont spoke in strong opposition to just last week. In the governor’s own words, this bill creates a ‘top-heavy bureaucracy’ and is ‘not a recipe for success.’ Now, after a few inconsequential changes, he seems to have forgotten about all those issues he questioned just last week.”
Republican lawmakers in the House remained staunchly opposed to the legislation during a lengthy all-day debate.
Rep. Joe Polletta, R-Watertown, said it’s just another bill that hurts business in the state of Connecticut.
“If you look where we are as a state compared to the rest of the nation, it is pretty scary,” Polletta said.
He said it’s a payroll tax on employees and there are real questions about the solvency of the fund.
“Companies are pleading with the state legislature to look out for them,” Polletta said. However, he said this legislation doesn’t do that.
“We are trying to create something that can never exist perfectly,” he added.
Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, said the legislation is about helping employees and making sure mothers don’t have to choose, like she did, between a newborn in the NICU and her job.
“This story is not unique: there are many mothers out there who have had to deal with similar circumstances,” Porter said.
Polletta said losing a valued employee for weeks at a time is “problematic” for small business because they will have to hire another temporary worker to take their place. Then when the employee returns they have to lay off the temporary one and will have to pay “unemployment.”
Porter said unemployment rates for a business in that situation will not increase.
Rep. Matt Blumenthal, D-Stamford, said he believes “it’s a pro-worker policy, it’s a pro-family policy, but I also believe it’s a pro-business policy, especially a pro-small-business policy, because small businesses cannot afford this program right now.”
He said California’s program has been in effect for 15 years and the “sky did not fall.” He said California workers did not take the maximum amount of leave most of the time, which is six weeks in that state.
“Workers go back to work as soon as they’re able,” Blumenthal said.
Republicans expressed worry about fraud and abuse. They said the definition of “family” was not narrow enough and would allow for someone unrelated to a person to take leave in order to care for an individual.
“The fraud component becomes significant when you widen the definition of who qualifies under this bill,” Polletta said.
The legislation requires all employees in Connecticut to participate. It also allows sole proprietors to opt in to the program. State employees covered by collective-bargaining agreements are not included.
“If this program is so good, then why are state employees who are part of a bargaining unit exempt?” Polletta said. “I just can’t understand it.”
Under the bill, every employee in the state of Connecticut would be asked to contribute 0.5 percent of their earnings to a state FMLA trust fund.
Within two years, employees will be able to access some of that money for 12 weeks of paid leave to care for a new child, a family member with a serious health condition, their own medical condition, exigency arising out of a family member being on active duty, or serving as an organ or bone marrow donor.
The wage replacement for employees on leave would not exceed 60 times the minimum wage, which would be $780 per week based on a $13-per-hour wage, $840 per week on a $14-per hour wage, and $900 on a $15 wage. Wage replacement would be 95% for those making the minimum wage.
Lindsay Farrell, executive director of the Connecticut Working Families Party, applauded passage of the bill.
“Eight years ago, the passage of paid sick days was an important step forward for working families,” Farrell said. “Since then, workers haven’t seen much in the way of raises and our state government embraced austerity. But in the last election, we saw an outright rejection of candidates who embraced the politics of austerity, and instead voted for candidates who promised to fight for a living wage, PFML, and pay and gender equity. That’s what made today’s victory possible.”