Business

Shirley Leung

Let’s not leave paid family leave up to a ballot initiative

Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff, file

There is little common ground between supporters and opponents of paid family leave legislation, but this much they agree on: We can’t do this by ballot petition.

That’s because voter initiatives can be a messy way to create law. For proof, look no further than how we legalized recreational marijuana.

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So my advice to advocates of the bills backing paid family leave and business groups that oppose them: Get together, roll up your sleeves, and work out your differences. It’s time to implement legislation that mandates employers offer paid leave for workers who must take time off for medical reasons or take care of a new child or ill family member.

You did this with the passage of last year’s groundbreaking law that will help close the wage gap between men and women. That took two decades, but this time lawmakers don’t have the luxury of time.

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The clock started ticking after Tuesday’s four-hour hearing on Beacon Hill. You can bet supporters, seeking leverage, will begin collecting signatures this fall to ensure a spot on the ballot in November 2018. It’s likely to pass, given that voters in 2014 strongly supported an earned sick time ballot measure.

That means the Legislature has until next summer to pass its own statute.

So do any lawmakers feel the pressure?

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“Yes, I do,” acknowledges Senator Jason Lewis, whose Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development held this week’s hearing.

Keep in mind the Senate passed a paid leave bill at the end of last year’s session to signal the issue would be its next priority. The House did not take up the bill.

This year, Senator Karen Spilka revived a version of the bill her colleagues passed last year, while Representatives Ken Gordon and Antonio Cabral each have their own legislation. Spilka and Gordon propose a paid leave program that is funded by both employers and employees. Cabral wants employees to fund paid leave, which is how other states have done it.

The bills vary in length of leaves and benefits provided. Spilka’s proposal calls for up to 16 weeks of paid family leave, while Gordon wants up to 12 weeks. Benefit amounts range from 50 to 90 percent of wages.

The list of business groups that oppose legislation is looooong: Associated Industries of Massachusetts, Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Retailers Association of Massachusetts, Massachusetts High Technology Council, and so on.

Only one business organization, the progressive Alliance for Business Leadership, supports state-mandated family leave, saying that it is not only the right thing to do but a good way for companies to retain talent. In her testimony on Beacon Hill, Alliance president Jesse Mermell also pointed out how California and New York — two of Massachusetts’ biggest economic competitors — already have paid leave laws on their books.

So what are the sticking points between supporters and opponents? There are many, which is exactly why a sausage-making approach in the State House is much better than a ballot petition, which presents voters with an all-or-nothing option.

On other issues like raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour or charging the wealthy higher taxes, you’d be hard-pressed to get the many business groups that oppose these measures to eventually support them. But the issue of paid family and medical leave is different. Business groups support the concept, and many of their member companies already offer the benefit.

“This is not black or white,” said Lewis, who along with his committee cochair, Representative Paul Brodeur, has invited business leaders to come in and work through their concerns about the bills.

The debate is likely to center around cost. The Massachusetts plans are generous, compared to what other states have enacted. In other words, the business groups don’t want to offer a Cadillac plan when a Chevrolet might do.

As they point out, other states don’t require employers to pay, but rather workers carry the cost.

For some firms that currently offer paid leave at their own expense, a mandated program could save them money, since employees would also be contributing, or it could help these companies expand the benefit.

The price tag for paid leave matters. Massachusetts already mandates generous earned sick time, and lawmakers are already looking at an assessment on the private sector to offset ballooning state health care costs. Add in expensive energy costs and a higher minimum wage, and the cost of doing in business in Massachusetts starts to get out of control. Did I mention that a tax on millionaires might be next?

From that vantage point, you can understand why business groups are putting up a stink, but they can only act that way so much longer with the ballot question looming.

“There is a desire to do something and assume a seat at the table,” said the president of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Jim Rooney.

So mark your calendars. Business honchos have 13 months to figure out a law everyone can live with before the end of the session. If they don’t, they risk looking like dinosaurs.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.
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