State-paid leave evolves to focus on low-income workers

Ensuring low-income workers have access to paid time off for their family and medical needs has become an increasingly high priority for state-run paid time off programs, including one in Connecticut that is slated to begin. to pay benefits on January 1.

The movement among the most recent paid vacation users, including Colorado, the District of Columbia, Oregon and Washington State, has also helped shape policy. details of a paid leave proposal that was passed by the US House last month but faces major hurdles in the Senate.

Newer programs like the one in Connecticut are designed to replace almost all of the income of low-wage workers during their weeks off, as well as to ensure that they are protected against losing their jobs for taking time off. said State Senator Julie Kushner (D), who co-chairs the Connecticut Legislature’s Labor Committee and helped design the state’s paid vacation program.

“We had the benefit of looking at other states that had already implemented the program. We have learned from these states, ”Kushner said. “We focused on making sure low-wage workers get the most benefits, because I think they have the hardest time paying their bills when they need to take time off.”

The approach is a change from the state’s early paid vacation programs, particularly in California, which initially replaced a much smaller percentage of workers’ income during their free time and did not extend the protection of workers. employment. The California program has drawn criticism from worker advocates because it is difficult for low-wage workers to use the benefits, which also creates a problem of racial and gender equity.

Low-wage state workers are “disproportionately women and disproportionately black and Latin workers,” said Kristin Schumacher, senior policy analyst on the left California Budget and Policy Center.

It remains to be seen whether the lessons states have learned can make the leap to a national agenda. While the federal proposal may gain Senate approval, it does not include universal job protection, meaning some low-income workers would still be at risk of being fired for taking paid time off.

Senate Democrats need their 50 caucus votes to pass their spending plan in line with budget rules, but West Virginia moderate Joe Manchin has expressed reservations about the new paid vacation entitlement and has said he would prefer pursue a bipartite paid vacation solution. Party leaders, including the Senate majority leader Chuck schumer (DN.Y.), said they continued to fight to keep paid holidays in the finance bill.

The Senate Finance Committee includes paid holidays nationwide A proposal House Democrats adopted in the committee’s draft text released on Dec. 11, but the wording may be revised or removed from the spending schedule before it gets a full Senate vote.

Movable scale of benefits

The first state-paid family leave programs, such as those in California and New Jersey, offered a lump sum wage replacement, granting all workers 55% and 67%, respectively, up to a maximum amount of weekly benefits, according to an analysis by Vicki Shabo, a senior researcher who studies paid vacation left New America thinking group.

“The Washington State program, which began paying benefits in January 2020, pioneered progressive wage replacement, replacing 90 percent of the wages of low-wage workers and a blended rate for everyone else.” Shabo wrote.

Connecticut’s program will replace 95% of the weekly pay for lower-income workers who take time off, providing a lower percentage for higher income levels. Colorado and Oregon, which have promulgated paid vacation laws but are still implementing the programs, will also follow this sliding-scale method, replacing 90% and 100% respectively for the lowest-paid workers in their states. .

California and New Jersey have since increased their wage replacement rates, although Schumacher said the 70% offered by California to lower-income workers is still too low to be useful.

California Governor Gavin Newsom (R) refused to sign legislation this year that would have gradually increased replacement pay. Newsom raised concerns about the cost of higher benefits and the higher tax rates that employees are expected to pay.

The federal program, if enacted, would offer 90% wage replacement for lower income workers, then reduce the percentage for middle and upper income. Nine states as well as the District of Columbia have paid family and medical leave programs in place, including those that have not yet started paying benefits, and they tend to provide more than the four weeks per year provided for in the federal proposal.

Democrats in Congress have been looking for ways to keep their paid vacation proposal while reducing the size of their social spending plan to less than $ 2 trillion over 10 years. In the process, they shifted the portion of paid time off to focus even more on low-income workers, raising wage replacement to 90% rather than 85% under a previous House plan. At the same time, they have reduced the amount of reimbursement available to high-income workers.

The programs and the federal proposal typically provide paid time off for workers to care for a new child, their own serious medical condition or a sick family member, as well as for reasons related to military service. a member of the family.

Coverage gaps

Targeting government-run paid time off programs on low-income workers is a wise policy choice, as higher-paid professionals are more likely to receive paid time off from their employers, said Angela Rachidi, senior research researcher on poverty at the conservative university. American Institute of Business.

“From a political point of view, you would like to identify where there are gaps in coverage, and that is clearly for low-wage workers,” she said, adding that the federal proposal misses the mark. , in part because it doesn’t. t extend employment protection.

The Federal Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 already prohibits employers from dismissing workers who take up to 12 weeks of leave for qualifying reasons. But the law only applies to employers with 50 or more employees, and only covers workers who have been with their employer for at least 12 months and have worked at least 1,250 in the past year. This excludes millions of part-time workers, new entrants to the workforce, and those who work for small businesses.

The Connecticut program also takes another notable step to make benefits more widely available, using a broad definition of family members for whom a worker can be absent, said John stretton and Nicole mule, employment lawyers in Stamford, Connecticut, office of Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, PC

In addition to listing specific family members whose illness would allow a worker to take time off, Connecticut law also includes any non-parent whose close association makes them equivalent to a family member. The federal proposal pending in the Senate uses similar language.

“It’s a pretty broad category,” Stretton said. “It’s really designed to provide a more progressive definition of family.”

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