Business & Tech

Lawmakers consider giving workers paid leave

Three weeks after Bethany Fauteux gave birth to her son via C-section, she was back at work at a New Bedford preschool — chasing after toddlers and getting down on the floor to rub their backs at naptime. Fauteux would have stayed home longer, both to heal after surgery and bond with her son, but the preschool didn’t offer paid time off, and she couldn’t afford to miss another paycheck.

“It was hell,” said Fauteux, whose son is now almost 4. “The physical pain didn’t even touch the emotional pain. Every day I cried.”

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A trio of bills being considered by the Legislature would help people in Fauteux’s situation by requiring employers to offer paid family and medical leave.

Currently, just four states mandate paid leave, but efforts are underway to require it in 19 states – including campaigns and bills covering all of New England — and President Trump has proposed a federal law giving new parents six weeks of paid time off.

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“Massachusetts has the opportunity here to be a national leader,” said state Senator Karen Spilka, an Ashland Democrat and lead sponsor of one of the bills, testifying before the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development this week.

The bills — two in the House and one in the Senate — would offer 12 or 16 weeks of paid time off to care for a sick family member or a new child and 26 weeks for an employee’s own illness or injury.

Employers and employees would both pay into a fund, with employers required to contribute at least half the cost in two of the bills; the average cost is estimated to be $3.44 or $4.82 per week per employee, according to simulations based on those two bills conducted by local economists.

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The fund would provide partial wages for workers, capped at $650 or $1,000 a week, based on the various proposals, and would allow employers to hire temporary workers to replace people on leave.

Currently, 27 percent of Massachusetts workers don’t have access to paid leave, and they are disproportionately low-wage workers, according to a University of Massachusetts Boston economist, Randy Albelda. About 12 percent of Massachusetts workers take a leave every year, with an average length of 33 days, said Albelda, who estimates that two of the paid-leave bills would increase the number of annual leaves by as much as 2.4 percent.

The United States is one of just a handful of countries — along with Papua New Guinea and Suriname — without mandatory paid parental and medical leave.

Unlike in the states that currently have paid leave, which are all funded by employee payroll taxes, Massachusetts would be the first state to require employers to contribute to a paid-leave fund, and the business community is largely opposed.

Paid leave would be the latest in a long line of expenses shouldered by business owners, employer groups note, including the highest state minimum wage in the nation, paid sick leave, and significant energy and health care costs.

That leaves less money for pay raises, they say, and puts businesses at a competitive disadvantage with employers in nearby states. It would also mean taking money out of everyone’s checks to fund the paid-leave program.

“Are these one-size-fits-all solutions really good for everybody?” said Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts. “Do I want to see my paycheck reduced to pay for somebody else’s leave?”

This is the fifth time Spilka has filed a bill on unpaid family leave, and after passing the Senate but not the House last year, its momentum has grown, with 25 Senate sponsors and 38 House sponsors. If the Legislature doesn’t pass paid leave, the advocacy group Raise Up Massachusetts is poised to start collecting signatures to put it on the 2018 ballot, where it is widely expected to pass.

During more than four hours of testimony on Tuesday, the Labor and Workforce Development committee heard from dozens of supporters of the bill: a pregnant fast-food worker who was in the beginning stages of labor; a project manager at a software firm who saw productivity drop, and stress levels rise, when a sleep-deprived new mother returned to work too soon; a caregiver who retired early to care for her aging mother; academics citing research that paid leave improves morale and reduces turnover; and advocacy groups noting that paid leave promotes economic security, gender pay equity, healthier children, and more stable families.

Carl Fantasia, the third-generation owner of New Deal Fish Market in East Cambridge, is in favor of paid leave, despite the added costs. Covering five employees who work 30 hours a week would run him less than $350 a year, according to Albelda’s estimates — a small expense Fantasia is more than willing to pay to give his employees peace of mind.

“It can’t always be about the bottom line,” he said. “There’s a human element to this.”

Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.
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