The new year will be an important one for workers’ rights in Massachusetts. Here are three key pieces of legislation that take effect in 2021. The trio is part of a large labor and wages bill passed in 2018, known as the grand bargain. Advocates say several of the measures will help workers desperately in need of relief during the pandemic. In addition, starting this year retail workers will be eligible for holiday pay on Juneteenth, after officials recognized it as a state holiday.
1. Paid family and medical leave
Starting next year, all employees in Massachusetts will have access to paid family and medical leave that will allow up to 12 weeks of family leave and up to 20 weeks of medical leave, with the guarantee that they would be restored to their same or equivalent positions, with the same status, pay, and employment benefits.
The program is funded through a payroll tax that, on average, adds up to around $4.50 weekly per employee. The cost is divided roughly in half between employee and employer. Businesses have been paying into the plan for the past year, a system designed to ensure that a pool of funds would be ready by the time workers may start accessing the benefit.
“Everybody is paying for it, so people should not be shy about using it,” said Emily Smith-Lee, a business and employment lawyer in Sharon.
The leave is designed for people who have welcomed a new baby into their family in the last 12 months, whether by giving birth, adopting, or fostering. It is also designed for those dealing with serious injury or illness.
The program takes effect Jan. 1, with the exception of people caring for a sick family member, who can use the leave beginning July 1.
The state program is similar to the federal family and medical leave program, however the state version is paid and applies to all companies, whereas the federal program applies only to businesses with 50 employees or more.
The leave can be used within 12 months of welcoming a new baby, so parents who welcomed a baby in the past six months can still use the leave beginning in January, said Andrew Farnitano, a spokesman for Raise Up Massachusetts, a coalition of labor, faith, and community groups that advocates for workers’ rights.
“They should be starting to look into the process now,” he said.
Unfortunately, this type of leave is not well-suited for workers who need to quarantine after a potential COVID-19 exposure, or for those who are ill with the virus, because it must be scheduled in advance. However, Farnitano said it will be helpful for so-called long-haul COVID-19 patients, who suffer side effects for many months after contracting the virus.
Many large employers have opted out of the state program, thanks to a provision in the law that allows them to find private insurance coverage that offers the same or better levels of coverage.
2. Increase in the minimum wage
On Jan. 1, the minimum wage will increase from $12.75 per hour to $13.50 per hour. The service rate, for waitstaff and others who earn tips, will also increase, from $4.95 per hour to $5.55 per hour.
This is part of the state’s multiyear program of raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2023. Next year, the rate is set to rise again, to $14.25 and $6.15 for service workers.
Smith-Lee, the attorney, said workers who earn tips should double check that their combination of hourly wages plus tips equals $13.50, something that is not a given during the pandemic. If it does not, employers must make up the difference.
“In normal times, for most people, it’s not a problem,” she said. “But with a lot of people needing to put more of their attention into takeout and delivery, that’s coming right out of the hides of the service people.”
Farnitano, of Raise Up Massachusetts, said the hourly rate increase will be important to those workers who have been on the front lines during the pandemic.
“Low-income working people are facing the brunt of this,” he said. This economic recession, unlike past recessions, disproportionately affects low-income and hourly workers who cannot afford to stay home.
“Every dollar will make a difference when many of them are spending their own money to purchase protective equipment, to purchase hand sanitizer,” he said.
The increased wage will also serve as an economic stimulus, he said, because low-income workers often must spend most of the money they earn, so those extra dollars will be pumped back into the economy.
3. Decrease in Sunday premium pay
Also on Jan. 1, premium pay for Sunday retail workers will decrease from 1.3 times their regular rate to 1.2 times.
When the Legislature in 2018 voted to scale up the minimum wage, it also voted to gradually phase out the extra pay that some workers earn for working on Sunday under what are known as Massachusetts Blue Laws.
The rules that govern Sunday pay can be confusing, Smith-Lee said.
If any retail employee works Sunday but also works more than 40 hours in a week and qualifies for overtime pay, they cannot also receive Sunday premium pay, she said. But if, for example, someone works only 20 hours per week, including a Sunday, they are entitled to premium pay for that day.
Employees who work on commission are still entitled to premium wages on Sunday, Smith-Lee said. The Supreme Judicial Court clarified that last year in a case involving a mattress retailer.
Smith-Lee said that during the pandemic, she has received many calls from workers trying to determine which benefits will cover time off due to COVID-19.
4. Juneteenth as a new state holiday
The state this year designated Juneteenth an official state holiday, so retail workers should now earn holiday premium pay that day, which is 1.2 times their regular rate. Retail employees also cannot be required to work that day.
The June 19 celebration, which commemorates the end of slavery in the United States, became a Massachusetts holiday under a bill passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Governor Charlie Baker.
Juneteenth is the date in 1865 when a Union general informed residents of Galveston, Texas, that enslaved Black people had been freed — the announcement came 2½ years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. It was first celebrated as a holiday in Texas in 1866, and over time it spread across the country.