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NH budget includes paid family leave program

Concord Monitor
Published: 6/22/2021 9:38:08 PM
Modified: 6/22/2021 9:38:13 PM

CONCORD — After years of vetoes and drafts, a paid family and medical leave program — a first for the Granite State — would become a reality if Gov. Chris Sununu signs the state budget into law.

The policy provides 60% of wage replacements for up to six weeks of work per year. The policy is voluntary, meaning both individuals and employers can choose to opt in.

Five categories qualify for paid family leave: the birth of a child or caring for a newborn child for the first year; care for newly adopted or fostered children within the first year; care for an employee’s spouse, child or parent with a serious health condition; care for a spouse, child or parent who is in the military; a personal serious health condition that is independent of employment, if the employer does not offer Short Term Disability insurance.

State employees will automatically receive the benefit. This group of 10,000 employees will serve as a risk pool for the policy.

Sununu first vetoed a different paid family leave bill in 2019 when Democrats introduced a plan that required businesses to provide universal coverage. The governor equated the proposal to that of an income tax.

“Senate Bill 1 is an income tax that neither I nor the people of New Hampshire will ever support,” he said in a news release announcing the veto.

“No income tax. Not now! Not ever!” he wrote in red pen on the veto.

Democrats also tried to introduce a universal policy the following year, which was met by the governor’s red pen again.

The current policy serves as a compromise, according to Sununu. Democrats say it doesn’t go far enough.

“New Hampshire has the opportunity not just to have the option of providing voluntary paid family medical leave — but do so without an income tax. I am hopeful that the Legislature will appreciate the value of expanding access to private industry through such an innovative solution,” he said in a written statement this week.

With a weaker-than-wished-for policy, state Democrats are hoping for a more robust universal federal program, according to Sen. Becky Whitley, a Hopkinton Democrat.

“At this point, we are seeing more momentum at the federal level with an administration that is really listening to working families that can be done in a more effective way,” she said.

For Whitley, the problem with the state policy is it does not do enough to guarantee coverage.

“We have a lot of great small businesses in New Hampshire and a lot of people employed by small businesses and I am concerned that this voluntary plan will leave individuals employed by smaller companies out entirely unless they are covered by the statewide pool,” she said.

Oxland Builders, a local construction company in Stratham, N.H., is one of many businesses Whitley references. As a small general contracting company, paid time off is out of the picture for the business. Paid family medical leave would help solve that.

“I’ve definitely had many employees who would have benefited from it, if it had existed,” said Brad Sawler, the owner of Oxland. “I had one guy whose wife had cancer. I’m a small little company. I can’t afford to pay my employees for any, anything more than you know, from time to time.”

And in a company where most employees are carpenters by trade, odd jobs on the weekends for friends and family are common. But they come with a risk.

“You’re over fixing a step on mom’s back porch and trip off the deck and break your ankle. What am I gonna do? They’re not working for me at that time so I can’t pay them for their time off. How are they going to get covered for the four or five weeks or six weeks that they need to recover?” he said.

Oxland was one of several New Hampshire businesses featured in a recent ad campaign by Paid Leave for the United States Action, Paid Leave for Action and Main Street Action urging Congress for a national universal paid family leave policy.

Under the new policy, Oxland Builders will be able to opt into the program and provide it for all employees. Or, if they choose not to, individuals can seek out the program themselves. With these options, there is universal access to coverage without forced universal implementation, according to the New Hampshire Department of Insurance.

However, some Republicans view the program as an unnecessary expansion of government.

“I hate to see government continuing to set higher and higher bars for private businesses,” said Sen. Harold French, a Franklin, N.H., Republican. “When I raised my kids, if they were sick I stayed home with them and I didn’t get compensated for it. When I do things for family members I do it out of love, not out of the fact that I’m getting compensated for doing it by a third party.”

Lawmakers will vote on the final version of the bill on Thursday before it heads to Sununu’s desk for a signature.

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