Paid leave benefit raises key question: Who pays?

Though supporters of legislation that would establish a paid family and medical leave requirement in Massachusetts hope to see a version of the bill signed into law this session, key details of the proposed policy — including who would pay for it — are still up for discussion.

“I think there are nuances to the bill that have to be worked out,” Sen. Daniel Wolf, Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, said during a press conference last Thursday. “Is it employee paid or is it employer paid? What does the benefit actually represent and for whom?”

Legislation filed by Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Karen Spilka and Rep. Ken Gordon (S 1718, H 1718) and a similar bill (H 809) from Rep. Antonio Cabral would allow Massachusetts workers up to 12 weeks a year to care for a sick relative or new baby or adopted child. The bills differ in the amount of benefits the employee would receive, but each would fund the program through employer contributions.

Under Cabral’s bill, workers could receive 66 percent of their weekly wages up to $1,000. Spilka and Gordon’s bills set the benefit level on a scale based on area median income.

The three bills are before the Labor and Workforce Development Committee, where Wolf said lawmakers are looking at what is done in other countries and states with family leave policies. Spilka said the United States was one of three industrialized countries in the world without a paid leave standard.

On Thursday, Spilka, Gordon and the labor committee held a panel discussion with representatives from businesses that do offer family leave and US Deputy Labor Secretary Chris Lu, who said afterwards that the policy is in line with the Obama administration’s goal of “doing right by our workers.”

“Frankly, to me, it is unconscionable that in the richest nation in the world we don’t have a national paid leave policy, and the president has been vigorous in advocating for Congress to take action on that issue,” Lu said. “But in the absence of Congress acting, we are traveling around the country giving lift to initiatives at both the state and city level like what is happening here in Massachusetts.”

Lu and the lawmakers met with Gov. Charlie Baker after their press conference. “To tell you the truth, I didn’t know that much about the bill walking in, and I used it mostly as a session for inquiry” Baker told reporters later that day. “I certainly think we have some homework to do on it and I want to spend some time talking to not just folks in the legislature, but also folks in the employer community and elsewhere.”

“On the one hand, you have the bill, which calls for employer contribution,” Wolf said. “On the other hand, we have some real-life situations where the employees are making it, such as California. I think what you’re going to see here is a good conversation about whether it should be a hybrid, about whether it should be employee or employer, but I think that’s all fair game for discussion now.”