Column: It Is Time For Paid Family and Medical Leave In Massachusetts

Virtually all of us will need to take time off from work at some point in our lives due to a serious injury or illness, the birth or adoption of a child, or to care for a sick family member. When this situation arises we should not have to risk job loss or financial ruin. Unfortunately, for millions of workers in Massachusetts today, they either have no access to family or medical leave or they cannot afford to take unpaid leave.

The United States is one of the only wealthy countries in the world that doesn’t provide paid family and medical leave (PFML) to all of its workers. A few states — including California, Washington, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island — have created PFML programs for their residents, and some employers, particularly larger companies, may offer certain paid leave benefits for their employees.

The Federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires employers with 50 or more workers within a 75 mile radius to offer up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave to certain eligible workers to deal with serious personal and family health conditions or to care for a new child. FMLA only covers about 60% of the workforce. The Massachusetts Parental Leave Law extends family leave for up to 8 weeks for the birth or adoption of a child to workers at smaller companies (those with 6 or more employees). However, like the FMLA this law only requires employers to provide unpaid leave. As a result, many workers cannot afford to take any leave at all or they end up taking a shorter leave than they really need. They may also need to exhaust any sick days or vacation time they are entitled to.

There are a number of strong arguments in favor of establishing a comprehensive paid family and medical leave program in Massachusetts. It would improve worker morale and productivity, reduce employee turnover, strengthen families, improve child and maternal health, and ultimately benefit our state economy.

There are also many important and challenging design details that need to be carefully considered when creating a PFML program. For example, what is the appropriate length of leave for different medical and family needs; what should the eligibility criteria be; what is the appropriate wage replacement rate; how should the program be administered; how should the program costs be shared between businesses and workers; should employers of different sizes be treated differently; what are the tax implications; what is a reasonable implementation timeline; and much more.

A number of different PFML bills are currently under consideration in the legislature’s Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, which we co-chair. In addition, Raise Up Massachusetts — a large coalition of community groups, religious groups, and labor unions — has gathered enough signatures to put forward a PFML ballot initiative in the November election. However, both Raise Up and the business community agree that it would be preferable to work out the details of a PFML program for Massachusetts through the legislative process.

To this end, we have convened a Working Group with representatives from Raise Up and the business community. This group has been hard at work over the past four months, and we are hopeful that we can reach an agreement that will receive the support of our colleagues in the legislature as well as Governor Baker.

With so many workers and families struggling to make ends meet, creating a strong paid family and medical leave program in Massachusetts is vital to the wellbeing of our Commonwealth. We must lead on this important economic security issue.

Senator Jason Lewis and Representative Paul Brodeur are the co-Chairs of the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development.