House green-lights proposed family and medical leave program

  • The House convenes at the State House in Concord on Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor file

Monitor staff
Wednesday, January 10, 2018

A bill to introduce paid family and medical leave in New Hampshire passed the House on Tuesday, the latest step forward in a decades-long effort to create a program.

In a 183-151 vote, lawmakers voted in favor of House Bill 628, which would create a state-administered insurance program to provide employees up to 12 weeks of paid leave. The program created by the legislation would offer leave to workers who have recently become parents, who are suffering serious health conditions or 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.

Lawmakers in support touted the bill as an opportunity to create a benefit not broadly available to Granite Staters – a benefit polls have suggested is highly popular.

A University of New Hampshire poll from August 2016 found that 82 percent of the state’s residents supported paid family leave insurance. Among women, that number was nearly 90 percent.

“I find it hard not to vote the will of the people,” said Rep. Sean Morrison, R-Epping, who voted in favor.

But some Republicans said that the program would lead to unforeseeable costs. Without guarantees on whether enough people would pay in, the program could find itself underfunded, said Rep. Len Turcotte, R-Barrington.

Rep. Keith Murphy, R-Bedford, argued that the system as proposed, in which employees must actively opt out, is too restrictive. Because those employees must obtain a notarized letter in order to opt out, some could find themselves stuck in a system they never meant to participate in, Murphy argued.

“This is a well-intended but poorly conceived bill,” Murphy said. Murphy and Turcotte argued that employers could use existing private family leave insurance programs.

But Rep. Douglas Ley, the ranking Democrat on the Labor committee, countered that many employers don’t use private programs, leaving large numbers of low-income workers without access to family leave benefits.

And he said the program could help make New Hampshire more marketable to young workers and families.

“It provides desired flexibility in our ever-changing work-family balance,” Ley said.

The bill has now been referred to the House commerce committee and will likely need to go before the finance and rules committees. Rep. Mary Gile, who sponsored the legislation and has pressed for it for 20 years, said while the bill might be tweaked in those committees, its passage in the House provided encouragement.

“I have to feel good about it after all the work that’s gone in,” Gile said after the vote.

But how the bill emerges from the House could affect its future. Gov. Chris Sununu, who campaigned in favor of a family leave program, expressed caution on the bill’s funding structure ahead of the vote Tuesday.

“I love the concept of paid family leave, and I’m hoping that we can find a way to make it sustainable,” he said. “I think my biggest fear is that we pass a piece of legislation that isn’t sustainable, that we can’t maintain for the long term, because you don’t want to create a program that can’t be funded down the road. So I’m hoping that they find a solution to that.

“It’s an expensive program but one that can definitely bring some benefit to the families of New Hampshire,” Sununu said.

(Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report. Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)