state Representative Paul Brodeur and state Senator Jason Lewis
State Representative Paul Brodeur and state Senator Jason Lewis.
Illustrations by Sabrina Smelko for the Boston Globe

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The Massachusetts politicians who actually got something big done: Paid family leave

It took more than a year of negotiation, but legislators Paul Brodeur and Jason Lewis achieved one of the nation’s best family and medical leave acts.

With so much dysfunction in Washington, it can be hard to remember if government can get anything done. Even back in Boston, Beacon Hill had a middling year with some big-ticket legislation left on the table, most notably fixing the education funding formula and reining in health care costs.

But there was one bright spot: Two legislators teamed up to usher through a paid family and medical leave law that is among the strongest in the country. Starting in 2021, millions of Massachusetts workers can take up to 12 weeks of job-protected paid family leave and up to 20 weeks of paid medical leave. A payroll tax — roughly split between employers and employees — will fund the program.

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Now mothers can stay home with their newborn babies without losing a paycheck or worrying about whether they have jobs when they return. Similarly, workers taking care of seriously ill loved ones — or facing illness themselves — can also take paid time off and know their jobs are protected.

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It was no small feat getting the various labor and business groups to yes, and that unenviable task fell on state Representative Paul Brodeur and state Senator Jason Lewis, the two cochairmen of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development. Lewis will tell you the secret to their success was simple: Don’t wait until the last minute.

“We kicked off this process with all the stakeholders really more than a year before the end of the legislative session,” Lewis says. “If we had been trying to work this all out with a month or two to go in the legislative session, that would have been almost impossible.” A paid family and medical leave program is complex — from figuring out the number of paid weeks off to calculating how to fund it.

The two lawmakers began laying the groundwork for negotiations in the summer of 2017. There was a sense of urgency because progressive groups vowed to collect signatures for a ballot question that would mandate paid family and medical leave. Brodeur and Lewis backed paid leave, but believed a legislative process would produce the best policy. They also had to appease progressives who wanted to mandate paid leave and business groups who were wary of it. Workers were represented by Raise Up Massachusetts, The Alliance for Business Leadership, the Service Employees International Union Local 509, and Greater Boston Legal Services; businesses were backed by Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, and the Springfield Regional Chamber.

Negotiations began in the fall of 2017 and escalated throughout the spring. Brodeur thought it was critical from the get-go that he and Lewis present themselves as “honest brokers” determined to get a bill everyone could support.

“We certainly said many times along the way, ‘We’re not here to waste your time,’ ” recalls Brodeur. And from there, “We kind of ground it out.”

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Ultimately, paid family and medical leave would get rolled into a so-called grand bargain — legislation that would also raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2023, eventually eliminate time-and-half pay on Sundays and holidays, and create an annual sales tax holiday.

Brodeur and Lewis show that it’s possible for government to get something right — if we can all just get along. 

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