State Legislature Takes Further Action To Address Pandemic Impacts

On May 20, the Massachusetts State Legislature gave final approval to a bill to guarantee COVID-19 emergency paid leave to workers, as well as help businesses avoid drastic unemployment insurance rate increases.

“No worker in the Commonwealth should have to choose between earning a paycheck and protecting their own health or the health of a loved one,” said Senator Jason Lewis, who first proposed a version of this bill in the spring of 2020 at the onset of the pandemic. “I’m very grateful to Senate President Spilka, my House and Senate colleagues, the Raise Up Mass coalition, and business leaders for working together to create this important COVID-19 emergency paid leave program that will be especially helpful to low-income essential workers and will help hasten the end of the pandemic.”

Massachusetts workers would be eligible for emergency paid leave should they be diagnosed with COVID-19, required to isolate, or need to care for a family member due to the virus. Building on efforts to increase vaccination rates in Massachusetts, employees would also be able to take emergency paid leave in order to receive a COVID vaccine, or if they have common vaccine side effects in the immediate days following the vaccine. This will ensure Massachusetts workers do not have to choose between a paycheck or access to the vaccine.  Employees taking COVID emergency leave would maintain all benefits to which they are entitled, such as health insurance, vacation leave, and sick leave.

Workers are eligible for up to five days of paid leave, at their regular rate of pay, capped at $850 per week—the same maximum weekly benefit provided for in the Massachusetts Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML) law. Employers covered by federal legislation providing for paid leave will have the cost of providing such leave paid for through a federal tax credit. For all other employers, the bill creates a $75 million COVID-19 Emergency Paid Sick Leave Fund to reimburse eligible employers for providing their employees with emergency paid sick leave. The state requirement for paid leave would extend until September 30, 2021 or until the fund is exhausted.

“In order for us to fully recover from the pandemic, all Massachusetts workers need access to emergency paid sick time if they are sick with COVID-19, quarantined, or need to care for a sick family member,” said Deb Fastino, Executive Director of the Coalition for Social Justice and a member of the Raise Up Massachusetts Steering Committee. “Many essential frontline workers need paid sick time so they can recover from the side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine. We appreciate the legislature’s clear statement this week that all workers, including municipal employees, deserve access to emergency paid sick time.”

The legislation also answers calls to address unanticipated unemployment insurance (UI) rate spikes caused by increases to the solvency assessment. In cases where businesses are currently set to see dramatic increases in UI rates due to the pandemic, this bill would spread those costs over a 20-year period, effectively reducing rates in the near term and giving businesses additional relief as the pace of business in Massachusetts picks back up. This change builds on previous legislation passed this year by the Legislature to freeze the rate schedule for employers.

“This bill will provide much-needed relief to Massachusetts employers who were blindsided by a massive increase in COVID-related unemployment insurance solvency assessments,” said Brooke Thomson, Executive Vice President of Government Affairs at Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM). “The 3,300 member companies of Associated Industries of Massachusetts applaud the legislature for stabilizing the unemployment insurance system and helping companies to invest in their own economic recovery and hire more people. Likewise, AIM has been involved in conversations with the legislature for months around the COVID leave language; and we support efforts to allow sick workers to stay home and those seeking to get vaccinated time to do so, while making employers whole as well.”

The bill now returns to the Governor’s desk.