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State Senate begins work on family leave bill

State House Bureau

April 05. 2018 9:42PM

CONCORD — A state-run family and medical leave insurance program would provide a basic safety net to run alongside unemployment insurance, according to supporters of such a plan, who made their case to a state Senate committee for the first time on Thursday.

Opponents argued that House Bill 628, establishing family and medical leave insurance, is flawed legislation that could end up costing the state more money than anticipated.

The hearing before the Senate Finance Committee naturally focused on the financial aspects of the program, but Dr. Oglesby Young, a Concord-based obstetrician-gynecologist, took advantage of the opportunity to address the social implications.

“Here’s the most important reason we need to pass this bill,” he said, testifying on behalf of the New Hampshire Medical Society. “We can invest in early childhood now, or 20 years later build bigger prisons at a much greater cost to society. The bill before us gives us an opportunity to invest in early childhood in order to create a more productive, caring society.”

Young described the stresses on an infant when bonding opportunities are lacking due to absentee parents. “This bill would give time and financial support at very low cost to new parents, permitting them time to create attachments to their baby that would pay dividends for the life of the child,” he said.

The House of Representatives passed the bill in a 171-162 vote on March 22. It calls for a 0.67 percent wage contribution from employees, who can choose to opt out of the program. After qualifying, a worker would get 60 percent of average wages for up to six weeks, with a minimum benefit of $125 a week.

Qualifying events would include birth, adoption or fostering of a child; or the serious illness of a spouse, civil union partner, child, parent, grandparent or in-laws, as defined by the federal Family Medical Leave Act; it also includes treatment for addiction.

Other supporters of the bill said it would encourage more young families to move to the state, which would help address a critical labor shortage, and help adults caring for aging parents in a rapidly “graying” state.

Greg Moore, state director of Americans for Prosperity, said the best solution for employers looking to attract the workforce they need is to allow them to design the wage and benefits package that will work for their businesses.

“The needs of a landscaping company with workers in their teens and early 20s are going to be different than an insurance company with 40-, 50- and 60-year-olds,” he said. “This is government intervention in the total compensation package, and the compensation that is used to pay for this payroll tax will crowd out other compensation in employee benefits or wages.”

Moore argued that the opt-out provision in the legislation is unreasonably cumbersome. Employees could only opt-out at the point of being hired, and would have to provide their new employer with a notarized opt-out document.

“The opt-out is only available before employment commences,” Moore said, “so the hundreds of thousands of people currently employed will never get the opportunity to opt out.”

Sarah Mattson Dustin, director of policy for the N.H. Women’s Foundation, took issue with that characterization of the bill.

“That construction of the opt-out provision is absurd,” she said. “The strictest construction would be to offer opt-out to incumbent employees on the effective date of the law, or on the next Jan. 1.”

The Senate has until May 3 to act on all House bills.

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