Bill seeks to boost paid medical leave in N.H.

New Hampshire employers will soon be encouraged to provide paid medical leave if a bill proposed by Rep. Mary Gile, D-Concord, is approved.

Gile is introducing the bill in anticipation of funding then-presidential candidate Barack Obama promised to states to adopt paid leave policies.

Gile said paid family leave would allow people to stay home with newborn babies or sick family members, which is not currently an option unless they do it without pay — “and a lot of people can’t do that,” she said.

Under the current federal Family and Medical Leave Act, eligible employees can take up to 12 unpaid weeks off work in a 12-month period to care for a newborn or adopted child, a sick family member, or themselves, if they have a serious health condition.

In order to be eligible under FMLA, employees must work somewhere that employs at least 50 employees living within a 75-mile radius of the facility. They also must have worked for the employer for 12 months and at least 1,250 hours over that 12-month period.

During his campaign, Obama promised to expand the act’s coverage to include companies with at least 25 employees. He also promised the FMLA would cover more purposes, such as leave for elder care and parental leave for children’s school activities. This expansion includes a promised $1.5 billion to assist states in starting paid medical leave programs.

“We’re hoping that this money will come through,” said Gile.

Gile said paid leave would not be required of New Hampshire employers, but encouraged.

“We’re trying to come up with a plan that incentivizes employers to offer this,” said Gile.

But the biggest incentive of all – money — is not being considered. “We are reluctant in this particular economic time to say we could offer a tax credit,” said Gile. “We have done that in the past, but I don’t think we could do that right now.”

Instead, Gile said incentives for businesses to offer paid medical leave are increased competitiveness, higher retention rates and the ability to attract the “best and brightest.” In encouraging paid leave, Gile said the top goal is to keep New Hampshire economically competitive.

But David Juvet, senior vice president of the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire, said the bill could have the opposite effect.

“If something passes that has a financial impact on businesses in New Hampshire, that puts businesses in New Hampshire under financial obligation to provide a benefit that other states don’t have — it makes New Hampshire an uncompetitive state to do business.”

The bill does not require employers to offer paid leave, Juvet said, but “sometimes these things that start out as voluntary over time become mandatory.”

He added: “Businesses that are literally struggling to stay in business right now don’t need to have new costs put on them,” he said.

Gile said she does not intend at all for a mandate and does not expect employers to bear the brunt of the costs. Instead, she said, they are looking at options for creating a self-pay system to which employees would contribute and could draw upon in case of a medical emergency.

“We are most interested in not only being in the position to use federal money, but also creating a revolving fund,” she said. “There needs to be a safety net for people who have run into circumstances that sometimes they control and sometimes they can’t control.”