NH House again OKs paid family and medical leave bill

But second vote to approve isn’t enough as measure is sent to House Finance Committee for scrutiny

For the second time this session, the NH House has approved a paid family and medical leave bill – but the measure still hasn’t made it past the House.

Instead the bill, which was approved Tuesday, will next be sent to the House Finance Committee for an unusual third look before returning to the full House again.

Still, House Bill 628 has cleared a significant hurdle, dodging a narrow recommendation from the House Commerce Committee to kill it.

Originally the bill would have charged a 0.5 percent premium (about $5 a week) to create a program that would provide a maximum 12-week leave at 60 percent of a worker’s salary to care for a new child, a sick or elderly relative, or one’s own physical or mental disability.

The measure also includes a provision that would allow employees to opt out of both the premium and the benefits, but only when hired. They could opt in after a waiting period, but they couldn’t opt out again unless they switch jobs.

This would make a New Hampshire program unique in the country, where other state programs are all mandatory. And that led to concerns about sustainability..

“Is this a viable insurance program?” said Rep. Laurie Sanborn, R-Bedford. “The answer is no. This allows the disinterested to opt out. There is no similar state experience, no data to look at. We are entering the great unknown.”

Supporters responded by offering an amendment that increased premiums to 0.67 percent and cut the benefits period from 12 to six weeks at the recommendation of the Department of Employment Security. The agency’s deputy director said that would easily work at a 70 percent participation rate, based on a survey of who would participate, and even at a 50 percent rate.

“These are very conservative estimates that more than addresses any lingering concerns about viability,” said Rep. David Luneau, D-Hopkinton. He noted that Employment Security could adjust the rates further, as they do with the state unemployment tax rates, if needed.

Not all doubters were assuaged.

“This is based on a bunch of assumptions,” said Rep. John Hunt, R-Rindge, who chairs the Commerce Committee.

“It’s an incredibly bad gamble for the state of new Hampshire,” Sanborn warned. “New Hampshire will be the only state to embark on such a radical program totally paid for employees.”

Still, lawmakers were inclined to give the program a try, easily passing the amendment by a 208-141 vote.

“It is time to get to yes on this bill,” said Rep. Mary Stewart Giles, D-Concord, the prime sponsor who has fought for such a program for nearly two decades.

Over 80 percent of the state supports the program, she said, “and they are willing to pay for it.” That support includes many small businesses, “who otherwise couldn’t afford this attractive benefit” that can help alleviate the states acute workforce, she added.

In an unusual move, the House Speaker Gene Chandler decided not to send the bill over to the Senate, but give it to a third committee, House Finance, whose recommendation would go back to the full House. Only then, will the Senate be able to consider the measure.

Categories: Government, News