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Paid family leave bill passed by N.H. House

  • House representatives vote in favor of a family leave bill, Feb. 8. Ethan DeWitt—Ethan DeWitt



Monitor staff
Friday, February 09, 2018

A bill creating a New Hampshire paid family and medical leave program cleared another hurdle Thursday, after the House voted, 186-164, to pass it forward.

House Bill 628 would establish a state-run insurance program in which private sector employees could choose to participate, paying premiums out of a percentage of their paychecks. Supporters say it would provide a needed service and incentivize young workers and families to move to New Hampshire.

But the bill has faced persistent questions over how it’s structured. Opponents said the program as written has potential solvency issues, with no guarantees that it will generate enough revenue to stay afloat.

Under the legislation, the program would offer leave to workers who have recently become parents, who are suffering serious health conditions or who have relatives suffering serious health conditions. All nongovernmental employers would be required to provide the plans – to qualify, workers would need to pay in quarterly premiums and be employed at least six months. Employee contributions to the plans would be capped at 0.5 percent of weekly wages.

Because of potential fluctuations in participation, critics say the program might struggle to keep its commitments, which could turn costly.

The latest version passed with significant changes to address those concerns. The amended bill cuts back the original 12 weeks of leave to six, and it increases the maximum employee contribution from 0.5 percent of wages to 0.67 percent.

Supporters – both Republicans and Democrats – said the changes reduced the program’s scope and worked to pare back any risks.

“This is a very conservative plan for an insurance program that almost everyone will benefit from at some point in their working life,” said Rep. Kermit Williams, D-Wilton.

But not all were won over. Rep. Laurie Sanborn, R-Bedford, a Commerce Committee member who led a subcommittee to examine the bill, said her main objection persists: The program allows workers to opt out, leading to risks that only those who anticipate needing to use the family leave time will take the insurance. That could mean the program could find itself unable to pay for the leave time it had guaranteed, Sanborn argued.

The effect: an income tax for private sector employees, Sanborn said.

“Is this a viable insurance product? The answer is no,” she said.

Sanborn and others, including Majority Leader Dick Hinch, R-Merrimack, voiced qualms with the estimated $14 million start-up cost to get the payments off the ground.

“This bill is an incredibly bad gamble for the state of New Hampshire,” she said. “It’s also a bad gamble for the people we’re trying to cover.”

But Rep. Mary Gile, D-Concord, who sponsored the bill, predicted the bill would attract robust participation. She pointed to analysis carried out by New Hampshire Employment Security suggesting that the program needed 50 percent takeup, or participation, to break even. Projections from that department indicate the takeup in New Hampshire could be higher, Gile said.

“We’re hoping we can get 70 percent – at least,” she said.

And Gile said while she was disappointed to see the benefit cut down to six weeks, six weeks would still benefit those who use it. Comparative state data indicates that the average takeup rate is six weeks, she said.

“We figured, ‘Well this is New Hampshire – if we’re going to get anything, it’s going to be six weeks.’ ”

The vote hewed closely to an earlier 183-151 floor vote in favor of the bill earlier this month. But voting 11-9, the Commerce Committee recommended the House kill the legislation on cost concerns. On Thursday, the chamber moved to overturn the committee’s recommendation.

For Gile, the road ahead is far from over. The bill heads next to the Finance Committee, and still must clear the Senate, the governor’s office and the Rules Committee.

Gile said she welcomes the process – the legislation should be subjected to fine-tuning along its journey, she said.

“There’s so much that has to be worked on, and it’s all done in different stages,” she said.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)