UPDATE, June 28, 10:42 a.m.: Gov. Baker committed on Wednesday evening to signing the paid family leave bill this week, according to local news reports. The governor “will hold a signing ceremony at 10:30 a.m. Thursday in his Statehouse office,” MassLive.com reported.
The United States is still the only developed country that doesn’t guarantee paid family leave for its residents. But some state legislators are taking matters into their own hands. Last week, lawmakers in Massachusetts approved a paid family and medical leave bill that, if it takes effect, will offer the most generous benefits we’ve seen yet. And the state will become the sixth in the nation (plus Washington, D.C.) with a paid family leave program.
The legislature didn’t stop there, though. It also approved an increase in the state’s minimum wage to eventually reach $15 an hour. Only two other states, California and New York, have passed the same minimum wage, the highest level in the country.
As states have moved incrementally forward toward adopting paid family leave, each successive bill has built upon the last to offer more generous benefits. Massachusetts’ new legislation continues that trend.
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Massachusetts’ pending paid family and medical leave program will offer those who need to care for seriously sick family members—including grandchildren, grandparents, domestic partners, and parents-in-law—and new parents who need time away from work to bond with a child—newly arrived in the family through birth, adoption, or foster care placement—12 paid weeks off. People recovering from their own significant illnesses or injuries can take 20 weeks. Workers will receive up to 80 percent of the state’s average weekly wage—which in the second quarter of last year was $1,278—and then half of their income above that amount, up to a cap of about two-thirds of state average weekly wages.
A few other states have legislated similar leave periods. The most time off is 12 weeks of family leave in New York and Washington, although New Yorkers can take up to 26 weeks for their own illnesses.
Massachusetts’s legislation was secured through a grand bargain: the Retailers Association of Massachusetts was threatening to put a question on the ballot to lower the state sales tax, while Raise Up Massachusetts—a coalition of over 100 labor, community, and faith-based groups—was going to put the wage increase and paid leave on it. Instead, the two groups got together with lawmakers and crafted the bill that just passed.
While Gov. Charlie Baker (R) hasn’t said whether he’ll sign it, and his office didn’t return a request for comment, he has said in the past that he wanted to keep these issues off of the ballot with legislation like this.
The grand bargain did mean making some compromises. Raise Up Massachusetts had wanted to ensure that tipped workers would be guaranteed 60 percent of the full minimum wage, but in the end they will only get 45 percent. The Retailers Association also succeeded in including a repeal of overtime pay on Sundays and holidays, something Raise Up Massachusetts opposes. The coalition will decide on Tuesday whether to move forward with putting a question about the minimum wage on the ballot.
Still, Deb Fastino, co-chair of Raise Up Massachusetts and executive director of Coalition for Social Justice, is proud of the end result. “We worked with each other and came up with the best and strongest paid leave bill in the nation,” she said.
In 2014, Rise Up Massachusetts succeeded in getting the minimum wage increased from $8 to $11 an hour and making theirs one of the 10 states to guarantee that workers can take paid sick days. It was a hard-won victory: Paid sick leave had been stuck in the legislature for eight years, and it took giving personal testimony, writing letters to the editor, lobbying legislators, and collecting hundreds of thousands of signatures to put the issues on the ballot.
But advocates knew they couldn’t rest on their laurels. “Immediately following that victory we started looking at new campaigns,” Fastino said. The committee quickly voted to pursue paid family and medical leave and a $15 minimum wage. “When we passed the wage from $8 to $11 an hour it still wasn’t a living wage,” she pointed out. Plus the Fight for 15 movement had created a national conversation about the need to raise wages that high. “We decided to make sure that we were going to continue to increase wages to allow people to be able to take care of their basic needs.”
They also knew that while paid sick leave was important, it wasn’t enough. “If you take a day out or two days out it’s great to get paid because of lot of people who don’t [get paid sick leave] have a hard time either paying one of their bills or not putting as much food on the table,” Fastino said. “But there’s a big difference between that and potential bankruptcy, losing a car because you can’t pay a car loan.” The latter is what residents faced when they needed extended time away from work to bond with a new child or deal with a serious illness. “With the wage replacement of paid leave, you can actually lay back and rest and allow yourself to be healthy enough to get back to work,” she noted.
It wasn’t hard to get across the severity of the need, however. “Everyone knows someone who’s had a heart attack, cancer, a stroke,” Fastino said. Many of the people who testified in front of the legislature cried when talking about not being able to take time to bond with their children, including a child care provider who described caring for other people’s children while her baby was with someone else.
Still, it took a lot of hard work. The coalition groups collected hundreds of thousands of signatures, held briefings for legislators, wrote letters to the editor, and staged big events at the Capitol building. “We filled our buses to get people to the Statehouse,” Fastino said. Members made tens of thousands of calls. “It was constant movement,” she said. “We were very visible.” Eventually, they secured more than 100 co-sponsors for the legislation.
Paid family leave and a $15 minimum wage are rarely paired together in legislation. But it made all the sense in the world to Fastino and the involved organizations. It’s about “economic justice,” she said.
“We’re going to continue to work on issues that affect working families in the state of Massachusetts,” she added. “We have a lot of work to do.”
Change could soon come elsewhere, too. Fastino is on the board of Family Values @ Work, a cross-state coalition of paid leave advocates. She and her coalition learned from the successes of paid leave in California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New York, and Washington. And now she can pay it forward to other states that look into doing the same. “They will definitely benefit from the experiences of Massachusetts, as I feel I have benefited from the experience of California and others that passed paid family leave,” she said.