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There’s a Serious Push for Paid Leave and Higher Wages in Massachusetts

Nicole Knight

“Nobody should be paid so little they can’t afford basic necessities, and no one should have to choose between working at the job they need to pay the bills and caring for themselves or the family they love in a time of crisis."

Will Massachusetts become the sixth state to guarantee paid family and medical leave?

A new signature-gathering campaign aims to put that question to voters in 2018, and asks whether the state should gradually raise the minimum wage from $11 to $15 an hour.

“Nobody should be paid so little they can’t afford basic necessities, and no one should have to choose between working at the job they need to pay the bills and caring for themselves or the family they love in a time of crisis,” said Deb Fastino, co-chair of Raise Up Massachusetts, the state coalition behind the signature gathering campaign.

The United States lacks a national paid leave policy, although unpaid family and medical leave is guaranteed to workers at larger companies in all 50 states. Five states and the District of Columbia have passed paid family leave programs, but only three have implemented them. Only 13 percent of private sector workers have access to paid family leave, according to the latest data from Bureau of Labor Statistics. Among those who work for low wages, that figure drops to 6 percent.

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Massachusetts law requires employers with six or more employees to provide up to eight weeks of unpaid parental leave for the birth or adoption of a child. But many employees cannot afford to take unpaid time off. Eighty-seven percent of workers in New England lack paid family and medical leave through their employers, and 1.2 million Massachusetts employees can’t take time off to care for a new baby, loved one, or themselves for fear of losing their job, according to Raise Up Massachusetts, a coalition representing labor, community groups, and faith-based organizations.

Recent research from the University of Massachusetts-Boston and Northeastern University suggests instituting a paid family and medical leave program will level the playing field for low-wage workers and employers and increase the economic security of working families.

“The bills have to be paid,” said Massachusetts early-education teacher Beth Santos-Fauteux, who could only afford to take three weeks off after a c-section. 

“Paid leave would ensure that all babies have the same chance at leading a positive and productive life with proper social, emotional and cognitive development leading to a better future for society,” Santos-Fauteux said in a statement.

The Massachusetts initiative is generous, providing workers with 90 percent of their average weekly wages, up to $1,000 a week. Workers can take 26 weeks of paid medical leave to recover from a serious illness or to care for a sick or injured service member. Additionally, they can take up to 16 weeks of paid leave to care for a newborn, to care for a sick or injured family member, or to attend their family needs because of a family member’s active duty military service. The benefits are paid through a 0.63 percent weekly tax on wages imposed on employers, with employees contributing up to half of the costs in some instances. 

Raise Up Massachusetts has until December 6 to turn in 64,750 certified voter signatures for the paid leave and minimum wage initiatives to qualify for the 2018 ballot.

Nationally, nearly 80 percent of voters polled in November 2016 supported a federal policy guaranteeing 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave. In a Pew Research Center poll released in March, 85 percent supported paid medical leave, 82 percent backed paid maternity leave, and 69 percent supported paid paternity leave. But Democratic-sponsored bills in Congress to provide those benefits, such as the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, have gone nowhere, stymied by opposition from congressional Republicans and the business lobby.

Raise Up Massachusetts has a record of success with voter initiatives. In 2014, it waged a successful campaign to enact paid sick days that won the approval of 60 percent of voters. Its initiative to fund public education and infrastructure projects through a millionaires’ tax has already qualified for the ballot in 2018.

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