GOVERNOR Chris Sununu’s refusal to support a mandatory paid family and medical leave program is a missed opportunity, not only for New Hampshire families but also for himself.

He vetoed a paid FMLA bill during the last session, and it appears that a similar bill, HB712, which passed this year, is heading to the same fate.

Under HB712, employees would be able to obtain up to 12 weeks of paid leave from their jobs due to an illness, or due to an illness of a family member. This is not some kind of paid vacation, as Sununu once called it. The benefit would only pay up to 60 percent of an employee’s salary and be subject to medical certification.

Four years ago, the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy examined the issue of paid medical and family leave. It found that a third of New Hampshire’s workers lacked extended paid leave to tend to a personal illness. Half lacked access to paid parental leave, and two-thirds lacked access for paid leave to care for an ill family member.

Put aside the moral issue of sick employees having to choose between a paycheck and getting well, or a parent having to choose between a job and caring for a sick child. It makes sense from an economic standpoint.

A 2017 analysis published on the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Public Policy Initiative site examined the impact of paid leave programs in California, New Jersey and Rhode Island, as well as some major tech companies that had introduced paid leave at their businesses. It reported that 90 percent of employers surveyed in California said the program either had no negative impact or increased productivity. Ninety-six percent believed it had decreased employee turnover. Companies concluded that it was more cost effective to hire a temporary employee for 12 to 18 weeks than to go through the hiring and training process for permanent replacements.

FMLA also fixes some of the economic disparities faced by low-income workers. The Carsey study showed that workers in families earning less than $60,000 a year have less access to paid leave than those with higher incomes. It would be helpful in keeping women in the workforce, as the burden of child care and caring for elderly parents often forces them to quit.

If Sununu signed the bill, he could take credit for something he is sorely missing: a signature accomplishment on a major policy issue. Instead, he opposes it with the claim that it would create an income tax. Not so. An income tax imposes a direct tax on all income, whether wage income, pension benefits, investment income, dividends, interest or lottery jackpots.

FMLA is not that. It is similar to unemployment insurance in that it requires employers to pay a small amount (.5 percent of an employee’s wages) into a state pool. Employers can pay the entire amount themselves, or pass along some or all of it to employees.

It is so cheap that an employer looking for an inexpensive benefit to attract employees would pay the cost. The New Hampshire Department of Employment Security estimates that the average cost would be $5.11 per employee per week, or about $270 per year per employee.

Effective, fair and cost efficient — no wonder the proposal is popular. Eighty-two percent of those surveyed by Carsey supported FMLA, with 69 percent willing to pay $5 a week for the benefit.

Sununu should join those supporters and end his opposition.

Manchester’s Kathy Sullivan is the former chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

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