Full NH House OKs paid family and medical leave plan

Governor’s voluntary plan hits snag as deadline for vendor requests is delayed

The New Hampshire state House of Representatives on Wednesday approved a mandatory paid family and medical leave insurance program, but the 199-133 vote fell short of the margin needed to overcome a possible gubernatorial veto.

House Bill 712 is similar to Senate Bill 1, which passed two weeks ago in the Senate along party lines, indicating that some version of the bill will probably reach the governor’s desk. Both measures impose a half-percent payroll deduction on all private employees to provide 60 percent of wages for workers who can take up to 12 weeks off in order to care of themselves or a family member.

Opponents of the bill, while saying they support the concept of paid leave, blasted HB 712 as a mandate that will force all workers to pay for a program that they could purchase on their own.

“The funding mechanism is an income tax,” claimed Jack Flanagan, R-Brookline.

But proponents said that while disability insurance is available, workers can’t afford, and small businesses can’t offer, a program that helps new parents take paid time off to care for their child or other working adults to take care of a spouse or aging parents.

“Two-thirds of our workforce lacks access to paid family leave,” said Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord. “This will help working people in their care, giving responsibility while maintaining their economic security.”

Others said the program was essential to attract workers to the state, especially since Massachusetts recently passed its own program, and Vermont and Maine have legislation in the works that seems likely to pass.

“We heard two straight hours of testimony in favor, many of them young millennials,” said Rep. Brian Sullivan, D-Grantham. “This is truly a workforce development issue that residents want and the state of New Hampshire needs.”

Employer participation limits

HB 712 is very similar to SB 1. Both would allow businesses to either pick up workers’ premiums or opt out and provide an equivalent program. Both would bid out the administration of the claims to a third party, and both would have the Department of Employment Security dovetail the administration of the premium collection with unemployment insurance, allowing the agency to adjust either the premium or the benefits by 10 percent to keep the fund solvent.

The only significant difference is the size of the companies affected. The House version sticks to the 50-employee limit of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, but the Senate’s would extend job protection provisions to employees of companies with fewer than 20 workers.

Business organizations have been particularly upset about including smaller businesses in the law, but generally opposition has been muted since some businesses support family and medical leave insurance. On Tuesday the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire came out against both bills for the first time.

HB 712 now goes to the House Finance Committee, chaired by Wallner, the bill’s prime sponsor, before the House votes on it a final time.

The two versions have to be reconciled before it goes to Governor Sununu, but he supports a voluntary program he is trying to set up with the state of Vermont. That one would allow businesses to sign on to whatever benefit is offered to state employees.

The governor’s Governors program faces an uncertain future. The state employees union in Vermont has rejected such a voluntary program in favor of a mandatory program, and New Hampshire’s State Employees Association, said they would have to see what passes through the legislative process.

New Hampshire has issued a request for information, but the deadline, originally set for Wednesday, has been put off until March 7, and the questions so far submitted by vendors indicate that there will be a lot of work before actual bids would be submitted. Finally, any bi-state program would have to get passed a Democratic legislature, though Sununu has upped the stakes by putting enabling language for his program in the state budget.

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