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NH supporters again pushing for family leave bill

State House Bureau

September 26. 2016 6:12PM

CONCORD — State Rep. Mary Gile, a Concord Democrat, has spent the better part of her 20 years in the State House fighting for paid family and medical leave for New Hampshire wage-earners.

“There have been a number of attempts to introduce it, at least five since 2000, and I’ve been involved in all of them,” said Gile, chair of the Legislative Task Force on Work and Family. “I’m persistent.”

She’s hoping that persistence will pay off in the next Legislative session as she and state Sen. Dan Feltes, D-Concord, are already working on a bill, and there’s a lot of activity surrounding their efforts.

Researchers from the Carsey School of Public Policy at UNH just completed polling on the question and created several models or simulations of what the program might look like, based on different premiums, participation rates and benefits.

The New Hampshire Women’s Foundation hosted a summit on Paid Family and Medical Leave on Sept. 21, where Carsey researcher Kristin Smith presented her findings. She plans to repeat that presentation for lawmakers at a meeting of the work and family task force on Oct. 3; and Feltes will make the case to the Business and Industry Association on Oct. 21.

Smith’s modeling gives lawmakers a lot of options to consider, including whether the program should be voluntary or mandatory, what the rate of contribution should be and what the level of benefits should be. About the only thing the sponsors agree on now is that the program should be entirely employee-funded.

Under one model, workers earning $962 a week, the state average, would pay $5 a week into the program, and be eligible for a weekly benefit of $577 for qualified events, up to a maximum of 12 weeks. The insurance would be designed to replace 60 percent of earnings, much like many short-term disability insurance policies.

Poll shows support

Smith, a family demographer at the Carsey School and an associate professor of sociology at UNH, has been applying for funds to study family and medical leave in New Hampshire since the Legislature last considered a bill in 2010, HB 661.

After several failed attempts, she finally succeeded with the help of New Hampshire Employment Security as the grant applicant. The state was awarded approximately $170,000 by the U.S. Department of Labor to study the issue.

That study revealed, among other things, that 80 percent of Granite Staters support paid family and medical leave, based on a random telephone survey of 500 individuals; and 69 percent would be willing to allow a withdrawal of $5 a week from their wages to pay for it, according to Smith.

The insurance would allow the employee to take up to 12 weeks of paid time for a personal illness, for parental leave during the birth of a child, or to care for a seriously ill family member.

Gile, Feltes and their co-sponsors have until late November to work out all the details in order to meet the Legislative deadlines for the 2017 session. Past efforts have never gotten out of committee, even though they have enjoyed bipartisan support with co-sponsors from both parties.

Gile thinks this is the year to make it happen, no matter who wins in November.

“Because now it has a national audience,” she said. “Both presidential candidates are advocating some form of paid family leave, and it has been well-addressed in all of the various candidate events. It’s on the agenda, and it could go national. We feel that something has to be done for our families.”

Four states onboard

Only four states currently have such a program — California, Rhode Island, Washington and New Jersey — although 40 other states are considering one.

The N.H. Business and Industry Association was neutral on HB 661 in 2010, and is taking a wait-and-see approach to the current initiative. Feltes is scheduled to make the case before the BIA’s Human Resource, Health Care and Workforce Development Policy Committee.

“We need to wait to collect information about the bill and receive member feedback before developing a position,” said David Juvet, Senior Vice President for Public Policy at the BIA.

Feltes and Gile said the data gathered by the Carsey research will enable lawmakers to craft a solution suited to conditions in the Granite State, where the opioid addiction crisis is unabated and retention of young workers is an economic imperative.

“Insuring some short-term wage replacement will allow workers to care for an aging family member, care for a new child and care for themselves, including getting needed substance misuse treatment,” they wrote in a joint statement announcing their legislative initiative. “This legislation will be uniquely New Hampshire; it will be bipartisan; and it will help us attract younger working families to the state.”

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