Family leave bill clears New Hampshire House panel

‘New Hampshire approach’ includes opt-out provision

A paid family and medical leave bill was approved by the NH House Labor Committee on Tuesday – despite objections from its chair and other Republicans – in what its sponsor, Rep. Mary Giles, D-Concord, called “just the first step in a long process.”

House Bill 628 would set up a state-run family and medical leave insurance program, operating similarly to unemployment insurance. The bill would create a fund to pay workers who need to care for a sick relative or child, or to recover from an illness themselves. They would receive 60 percent of their salary for a maximum of 12 weeks.

All workers would pay a half-percent of their salary into the fund, unless they opt out of both the payment and the benefits. 

That one-time opt-out, when an employee is first offered the program, and the ability to opt-in annually, sets this family leave policy apart from the plans offered in four other states that offer it – California, New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island, along with Washington D.C.

“It’s the New Hampshire approach,” said Amanda Sears, director of the Campaign for a Family-Friendly Economy, which supports the bill. “Our state is not overly fond of mandates.”

Sears said the opt-out provision was one of the reasons the bill has gained bipartisan support.

Still, some lawmakers called it a mandate.

“It’s a mandate. It’s a tax,” said Rep Leonard Turcotte, R- Barrington. “Call it a premium contribution, call it a doorknob. It’s a tax.”

Committee chair Stephen Schmidt, R-Wolfeboro, cited the opt-in and opt-out provision as a reason the bill – already retained from last session – should be held back again for interim study. The employees who remain in the program are the very ones most likely to use it, he said.

Already, he said, the expected participating rate – down to 6.4 percent – is “right on the bubble” of the “make-or-break line without a dollar to spare.”

That increases the danger of the program not being “financially viable,” he said, and if the fund runs low, he reasoned, the Department of Employment Security (the agency that would administer the program) would have to come to lawmakers to increase the rate. 

“This is benefit we are creating that will never go away,“ added Keith Murphy, R-Bedford. “If the funding is low, you can’t end it. You can’t tell people paying into the program that they can’t get it when they need it.  You’ll have to get the money from somewhere.”

Schmidt had a number of other concerns. While the bill covers all business, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act only mandate that businesses with more than 50 employees keep a job open for those taking leave.    Schmidt noted that those who take the benefit might not have a job when they get back.

Sears said that is true, but there are some protections, because employers can’t retaliate against workers for taking paid leave. 

Schmidt also noted that the bill asks the Legislature to allocate money to hire staff to run the program, funds that would be paid back from he family leave pool.

“We are talking 30 or 40 employees, that’s a good chunk of money,” he said.

But he noted that two fiscal committee, the Ways and Means Committee and the Finance Committee, might have a “whack of it” if the full House approves the recommendation when it goes into session in January to vote on retained bills.  Then it’s up to the Senate to take it up and the governor to sign it into law.  Giles agreed, and argued that’s why the committee should pass it.

Unlike other pro-labor legislation from last session, business organizations have not come out swinging against paid family leave. The Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire, for example, has been neutral on the measure.

“We have some employers that said it might be helpful in employee retention and others nervous about it,” said David Juvet, senior vice president at the BIA.

Gov. Chris Sununu has said that he supports the concept of family leave, and so has Schmidt, who emphasized that he wants to study the measure in order to “to improve it, not to kill it.” 

But other Republicans said they want to approve a bill that has been proposed in one form or another for the last 17 years.

“It’s not just a matter of keeping people in the state,” said Philip Bean, R-Hampton. “It is a social and moral imperative.”

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