Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie photo

HARTFORD, CT — It took advocates half a decade to make paid Family and Medical Leave in Connecticut a reality, but they finally got it over the finish line Tuesday.

It wasn’t easy. Just when it looked like a sure thing, Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont, who campaigned on the issue, threatened to veto the very same piece of legislation he signed Tuesday.

Lamont said he was able to sign the bill because the state budget, which he has yet to sign, included changes to the program that he wanted to see.

“I’ve been a strong supporter of paid Family and Medical Leave from the very beginning,” Lamont said Tuesday. “I wanted it done in the most fiscally responsible way that does not put the taxpayers at risk.”

The accompanying budget language 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. It will also streamline the contracting process, according to a press release from Lamont’s office. Under the budget language, 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.

However, none of those details mattered Tuesday as advocates took a victory lap.

Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said the legislation is a way to make Connecticut competitive and show “Connecticut cares about its workforce.”

Looney said if they hadn’t passed the legislation they might have to look for a new slogan: “Welcome to Connecticut, if you get sick while you’re working, you’re on your own.”

Karlene Whonder, a personal-care attendant, said she would have benefited from paid Family and Medical Leave when her husband got cancer and needed to quit his job to receive care. She said he had to go back to work before he was fully healed and it prolonged the recovery process.

“Working people like me will have the freedom to not worry about where their next meal will come from or stress about how the bills are paid while we focus on healing ourselves or assisting our family members,” Whonder said.

House Majority Leader Matt Ritter said it was hard for the legislative champions of this policy to be at the finish line and still have some hurdles. But “the marathon is finally over,” Ritter said.

Ritter said the benefits of the program are many, but what made him mad about the debate on the bill was the “lack of trust of Connecticut workers.”

He said there seemed to be a sense from opponents that people would abuse the legislation and take leave from work for reasons not allowed under the law.

The state’s largest business lobby opposed the legislation even though there’s no requirement that employers contribute to the trust fund.

“For those who may say this measure is anti-business, the answer to that is it is pro-worker,” Looney said. “I think this is something that we can really justify and celebrate today as a true achievement of the 2019 session.”

Rory Gale, owner of Hartford Prints! and a new mom, said the legislation will help her small business.

“This program creates real choices for both workers and employers,” Gale said. “It is hard to run a small business. It’s a lot of balance. It’s a lot of hard work, but this bill makes it a little easier.”

She said making Connecticut better means “taking care of our working families.”

The law requires every employee in the state of Connecticut 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 state-mandated, employee-funded disability insurance policy begins Jan. 1, 2022. Lamont and legislative leaders will have to make their appointments to the authority board by July 1.

“It’s about time. It’s about time,” Lamont said before signing the bill.

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