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HomeSpotlight Story | Bird’s Eye View | Budget & Taxes | Politics & Leadership | Governors | Hot Issues | Once Around the Statehouse Lightly
When the sun went down on 2018, a half dozen states and the District of Columbia had laws in place ensuring workers could take paid time off to deal with family illnesses or the birth of a child. When the calendar closes on 2019, several more may have joined them.
To date, only California, New York, Rhode Island, New Jersey and the District of Columbia have paid family leave laws in effect. Massachusetts and Washington will come on board in 2020 and 2021, respectively. But according to data from LexisNexis State Net and the National Conference of State Legislatures, family leave bills are now pending in numerous states.
Sherry Leiwant, co-founder and co-president of A Better Balance, a New York-based non-profit that advocates for family-friendly workplace policies, expects even more to follow.
“You will be seeing a lot – a lot – of new or expanded statewide paid family leave laws this year,” she says. “We’re getting calls on this issue every day.”
One of those measures, New Jersey Assembly Bill 3975, is one likely to become law very soon. That bill – which would double the amount of time a Garden State worker could take off from the current six weeks to as much as 12 and grow the cap on wages a worker on leave could receive from a maximum of $633 a week up to $859 – is now with Gov. Phil Murphy (D). He is expected to sign it. The new law would go into effect in July 2020.
New York’s paid leave law is also undergoing growth, increasing from eight weeks of leave offered when the law took effect in 2016 to 10 weeks this year and to 12 weeks by 2021.
And in his January budget proposal, new California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) pitched extending the Golden State’s current six weeks of leave at 60 to 70 percent of pay to as much as six months, which would be spread out between parents of a newborn or newly adopted baby. The proposed expansion does not appear to include time off to care for an ill family member, as does the current law.
While paid leave has generally been championed by Democrats, it is growing in popularity in some GOP circles as well. Vermont Gov. Phil Scott and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, both Republicans, introduced a joint paid family and medical leave plan in January. If endorsed by lawmakers in both states, it would offer eligible workers up to six weeks off at 60 percent pay, with time off allowed for both new babies and caring for a sick close family member. There are, however, two significant differences from most Democrat-endorsed proposals: participation by employers would be voluntary, and the plan would be managed by a private insurer rather than a state agency.
Scott last week launched a separate companion proposal that allows state workers with children between the ages of six weeks and six months old to bring them to the office with them, providing the workers have their boss’s approval and their workplace has been deemed appropriate by the state Commissioners of Human Resources and Buildings and General Services.
A Better Balance’s Leiwant says the most likely states to endorse their own family leave laws this year include Oregon, Connecticut, Minnesota, Colorado and Maine. Bills have also been introduced in, among other states, Arizona, Montana, North Dakota, West Virginia, Maryland, Florida, Indiana and Kentucky.
That is the kind of momentum paid family leave advocates have been waiting for since California became the first state to adopt such a statute in 2002. But offering paid leave is one thing; paying for it is another.
All the current laws depend on a payroll tax to cover their costs. How much that tax is and who pays it varies by state. In California, for example, a .09 percent state payroll tax on workers’ first $115,000 of income has paid for the current system since its inception. Rhode Island also taxes only employees, while in New Jersey and New York the tax is paid by both workers and employers. In D.C. only employers pay the tax. In California, Newsom’s expansion proposal offers no new funding method, directing instead the formation of a commission that would develop a mechanism to pay for the expanded program.
One obvious option would be increasing the payroll tax. That is the case in New Jersey, where AB 3975 changes the current law taxing the first $34,000 in wages to taxing the first $131,000. That drew a sharp rebuke from Assemblymember Anthony Bucco (R).
“I think if you asked folks whether or not they’d rather keep the money in their pocket than have an expansion to the family leave act, that they may or may not ever use, I think most people would say they’d rather keep the money in their pocket,” he told NJ.com last week.
His reaction is not likely to be the last concern raised over how states go about paying for bills like AB 3975 or the expansion Newsom is promoting. While the concept of paid family leave is growing more popular with both parties, new taxes are never a popular option even in California, where Democrats hold a supermajority in both chambers.
Even so, Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez (D) has filed legislation (AB 196) that would guarantee 100 percent wage replacement for workers who utilize the family leave program.
“Many working class Californians aren’t able to use our Paid Family Leave program because they can’t afford to receive only a portion of their paycheck. A worker shouldn’t have to choose between meeting their household budget and taking necessary time off during critical moments in life,” she said in a statement.
A proposal has also been introduced before the Los Angeles City Council to mandate 100 percent wage retention for workers in that city. But neither that measure nor AB 196 offers any details for how that would be funded. Both proposals have already drawn criticism from business groups fearful the burden will eventually fall on employers.
The need to increase or implement taxes may well be the moat that slows the advance of such bills even in states where the governor or lawmakers generally support the idea. Vermont Gov. Scott, for example, vetoed a paid family leave measure that reached his desk last year, citing his opposition to the tax it called for to pay for it.
Many large corporate employers already offer generous family leave policies similar to those being proposed or already implemented at the state level. Some, such as Netflix, are even more generous, offering workers up to a year of paid leave. But one corporate titan, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, recently cut its own one-year policy back to a maximum of six months. The foundation said the longer absences were harming both the company’s productivity and the careers of those workers who took that much time off.
Washington resident LeAnne Ruzzamenti understands both the benefits of and the concern over expanded family leave. A former California resident, she was able to take almost four full months off – six weeks of family leave and the rest through disability insurance - when her twins were born in 2008. While federal law would have allowed her take time off unpaid, she says doing so would have been “a real luxury” that wasn’t realistic for her family at the time.
With Washington’s law set to take effect soon, her new employer recently informed her and her co-workers that they would start seeing the new payroll tax coming out of their checks. While Ruzzamenti notes she tends towards fiscal conservativism, she welcomes the new law.
“I was actually thrilled to see it,” she says. “I’m more than happy to pay an ongoing small fee to make sure this is available to families, men and women, in more places.”
Her concern is that advocates for expanding family leave work with employers to ensure they are on board and able to live with the new laws.
Leiwant of A Better Balance says that has always been the goal of family leave proponents. She also points to studies that show the broad economic benefit to policies that enable more women to enter and stay in the workforce.
“States that have adopted these laws are clearly the impetus for others to follow suit,” she says. “With so many women in the workplace, it’s something whose time has come.”