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Family paid leave on Mass. agenda

Proposal in Senate is nation's most generous

Senate leaders this week will propose legislation to offer all workers in Massachusetts up to 12 weeks' paid time off to care for newborn and adopted children or sick family members, financed by an employee payroll premium of at least $1.50 a week.

The bill, which would pay employees their full salary, up to $750 a week, would create the most generous paid leave policy in the nation.

''What family hasn't been touched by some emergency," said Senate President Robert Travaglini, who will formally unveil the proposal Tuesday before the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. ''I've been through physical and medical problems. Knowing you're not going to lose your job and you will continue to be compensated will provide significant comfort."

The legislation drew a cautious reaction from businesses and labor groups, which may oppose the proposed employee premiums, and could face a tough fight in the House. The premium amount has not yet been determined, but Travaglini aides said it would likely be between $1.50 and $2.50 a week.

Under the bill, all employees would be required to pay into the fund, regardless of whether they believe they would ever take advantage of the benefits.

The premium proposal comes only days after Beacon Hill lawmakers enacted a healthcare law that includes a $295 per worker tax on employers that do not provide health insurance coverage.

Even though he is suggesting a payroll tax in an election year, Travaglini predicted his family leave proposal will gain support because the premiums would be so low. He said he hadn't decided when the Senate would take up the measure.

''I'm convinced the overwhelming majority of people will view this in a favorable way," said Travaglini. ''Employees are the direct beneficiaries, and the . . . contributions are a very small amount of money that can provide significant comfort and coverage in the event of a medical emergency or the birth of a baby."

The Massachusetts proposal would also attempt to protect employees' jobs, making it illegal for an employer to fire someone who opts to take a paid leave under the new policy.

The legislation would cover all 3 million employees in the public and private sectors, who would be eligible for a leave after working at least 900 hours in the previous nine months. Workers would be required to use their own vacation or sick time for the first week of their leave and then could receive an additional 12 weeks, paid by the new program.

Workers could also use the paid leave time to recover from an illness or to care for an ailing relative.

Travaglini, who batted down reports last week that he may leave the Senate, sees the proposal as part of an agenda to help working families, aides said. Democratic Senator Karen Spilka of Framingham, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Children and Families, said the bill will especially help families who struggle paycheck to paycheck.

''This will help working families across the Commonwealth," she said. ''Parents of newborns or newly adopted children who are so often unable to take time off. It will help employees who need to care for elderly parents and may help employees down the line recover from illness. This will touch probably every single employee of the Commonwealth during their lifetime."

The law is modeled after a similar law in California, the only state that currently mandates paid leave for family emergencies or parents with new children. But the California law pays employees only 55 percent of their pay for up to six weeks and is capped at $840 a week.

Currently, the Massachusetts Maternity Leave Act requires private employers with at least six employees to grant women up to eight weeks of unpaid maternity leave for the birth or the adoption of a child.

Nationally, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act requires larger employers with 50 or more employees to offer their workers time off without pay.

A 2000 survey found that about 12 percent of companies offered paid maternity leave and about 7 percent offered paid paternity leave, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families, a Washington, D.C.,-based advocacy group.

The Senate proposal, which offers paid leave, would put Massachusetts in the forefront of a national trend by states to pick up where the FMLA left off, advocates say.

''The Family and Medical Leave Act unfortunately covers only 60 percent of the workforce and is unpaid," said Deven McGraw, chief operating officer of the National Partnership for Women & Families. ''We'd like to see something happen at the federal level, but bills that have been introduced aren't getting any traction. The states are stepping in and making strides.

''California offers partial pay, up to a ceiling, as opposed to full pay. But it doesn't have job protection built into it. That is why this new proposal would put Massachusetts out front."

In 2001, lawmakers and Acting Governor Jane Swift considered several leave programs, but business groups balked and the state's budget situation worsened after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The Senate, for example, proposed spending $120 million of state funding to provide 12 weeks of partial pay for new parents who wanted time off.

Last week, local business and labor leaders said they were unsure whether they would back the latest proposal, which relies on employees -- not employers or the state's taxpayers -- for the bulk of its money.

''This is not a benefit that has historically been paid by employers, so we will have to have some discussion before we can declare it's good or bad, " said Rich Marlin, legislative director of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, which represents 400,000 employees across the state. ''How it will get funded and how affordable it is are still up in the air. In the end we may want some employer contribution."

Employees are clamoring for relief, he added. ''Given what's going on with families now, they are desperate for something like this. That is something we will have to weigh."

Business leaders said they will review the proposal, but are already feeling burdened by the new healthcare law.

''We have to look at the details," said Alan Macdonald, head of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, a group of 75 business executives from across the state. ''We've checked with the California Business Roundtable, and the law there seems to be working fairly well. But our concern is that it will be difficult for all sized companies to do this with the same effect. The smallest of companies may have difficulty losing an employee and guaranteeing their position. . . . But as you can guess, we want to focus on the new healthcare law now -- that's the big focus."

Said Jim Klocke, executive vice president of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce: ''The macro questions with a proposal like this are how are the (benefits) structured, how do they affect our competitiveness, and how do they work day to day in the real world. The answers will become clear once a bill comes forward."

Paid leave advocates say the programs help employers, who must make up for lost productivity of employees who take unpaid leaves, and employees, who lose thousands of dollars if they are forced to take off time without pay.

''People are already paying a high cost to take leaves," said Randy Albelda, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. ''Individuals are paying a particularly high cost over a short period of time. What this does is spread the cost over everyone, now and over time."

Ann Bookman, executive director of the MIT Workplace Center, predicted the plan could help stem the exodus of workers out of state. ''People see this as something for working families," she said. ''But it will help employers. It will create a more stable and more engaged workforce. Workers won't have to worry they'll lose their jobs if they exercise their right to leave. This will send a message -- we want Massachusetts to be a model for workers at different income levels.

''Families are in a lot of difficulty right now. A lot of workplaces aren't set up to accommodate the dual pressures people are feeling: They have to hang on to their jobs but have to care for their families. This new initiative will resolve that," she said.

According to McGraw, 25 states introduced paid leave bills in 2005. In addition to Massachusetts, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Washington are considering paid family or medical leave legislation, advocates said.

Reached late last week, spokesman for House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi and Governor Mitt Romney said they would withhold comment until reviewing the Travaglini legislation.

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