LITTLETON — At a thriving brewery whose employees and owners hail equally from New Hampshire and Vermont, Gov. Chris Sununu and Gov. Phil Scott on Wednesday rolled out a voluntary family leave plan that leverages the buying power of their 18,500 combined state workers.
Known as the Twin State Voluntary Leave Plan, the measure was immediately panned by critics, among them New Hampshire Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes (D-Concord) who called it a partisan “PR stunt.”
During a noon press conference at the Schilling Beer Co., located on the northern bank of the Ammonoosuc River in downtown Littleton, Sununu and Scott said they recognized that each of their states faced similar challenges in terms of providing paid family leave.
Although neither noted it, each of the governors is a Republican presiding over legislatures in which Democrats control both the House and the Senate, and in New Hampshire, the Executive Council, too.
The governors did, however, acknowledge that they rejected family medical leave programs in 2018, with Sununu explaining his opposition was based on the fact that the program constituted an income tax.
Nonetheless, the governors said they were inspired to pursue a voluntary paid leave program that is administered by a private carrier, not their states.
According to a prepared statement from Sununu and Scott, the family medical leave insurance offered under the Twin State Voluntary Leave Plan would be available “to all businesses, as well as individuals, and will be anchored by the state employee workforce of both states….”
Public and private sector employees would be provided 60 percent wage replacement for six weeks for qualifying events, including: child birth; adoption/foster care; caring for a family member with a serious health condition; dealing with a serious, personal health condition; and for any qualifying exigency arising “out of the fact that the employee’s spouse, son, daughter, or parent is a covered military member on ‘covered active duty’….”
“We both believe paid family medical leave offers an incredible opportunity to promote a work-life balance for many workers in our states struggling to meet the demands of the workplace while also meeting the needs of their families and their own health,” said Sununu. “By leveraging the economies of scale of each state’s employment base, insurance carriers will be able to write a competitively priced family leave plan.”
Having a large risk pool makes prices more stable and thus FMLI more affordable, Sununu continued, and also attractive to insurance carriers.
In preliminary conversations with what he said were “multiple carriers,” Sununu said their interest in the Twin State Voluntary Leave Plan was “high.”
Scott said if Twin State Voluntary Leave Plan passes muster in the Vermont and New Hampshire legislatures, it could become a model for the country and in his state would be a way for businesses to recruit and retain employees.
The plan, said Scott, represents “a competitively priced option available for all businesses and employees.” Scott added that in Vermont, the state will “be picking up the tab” for state employees to participate in the plan, which he estimated at “about a buck a day.”
That rate could change, said Sununu, and in some circumstances, “it may be less than that.”
The governors’ joint statement said if the Twin State Voluntary Leave Plan moves forward, the two states would select an insurance carrier, or carriers, through a coordinated Request for Proposals (RFP) process “to assume the risk and manage the benefit and claims under the plan.”
The carrier(s) would develop a “State Rate,” which is the “per-employee cost that each state would pay to provide a Family Medical Leave Insurance (FMLI) plan to its employees.”
Each state would cover “the full costs of providing an FMLI benefit to its employees, and employees will not have to incur any additional cost for the product”.
The plan carrier would be required to allow “all private sector employers in the state to opt-in to the FMLI plan with specified rates for the following categories of employer:
• Employers that have 100 percent employee participation and have 20 employees or more would receive the State Rate;
• Employers that have 100 percent employee participation and have fewer than 20 employees would receive a small employer rate which is expected to be modestly higher than the State Rate; or
• Employers that have less than 100 percent employee participation would receive a scaled rate that would depend on their participation rate and whether they had 20 employees or more.”
Feltes, in emailed remarks, said that on a matter that is “critical to combatting the opioid epidemic, addressing our caregiving crisis and helping seniors, and attracting and retaining the workforce of tomorrow,” Sununu should have followed the model of Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker instead of “teaming up with a governor (Scott) who vetoed paid family leave.”
Baker worked with legislators “who have been working on paid leave for decades to pass a real paid leave policy,” said Feltes, whereas with the Twin State Voluntary Leave Plan, “There’s no policy behind this, there’s no legislative planning behind this, there’s no actuarial studies, there’s no stakeholder support, and there has been no effort at bipartisanship.”
Feltes pointed out that after Wednesday’s press conference Sununu “acknowledged that his plan, if implemented, would result in substantially higher rates for individuals and small businesses.”
New Hampshire Democrats have worked “tirelessly to craft a plan that addresses Gov. Sununu’s demands,” Feltes summed up. “Unfortunately, instead of working together, unbeknownst to Democrats, Gov. Sununu did this PR stunt.”
Amanda Sears, director of the Campaign for a Family Friendly Economy, an organization that advocates in New Hampshire on family and medical leave, said what Sununu and Scott are proposing “falls way short of the mark” of the family leave that some Granite Staters have been working on for the past three years.
The governors’ plan, Sears said, offered few specifics and could actually lead to the creation of “an expensive high-risk pool that does little to help families balance their breadwinning responsibilities with caring for loved ones.”