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There’s a New Standard for Paid Family Leave Policy in the United States

Auditi Guha

Connecticut's new family leave policy includes a broad definition of a loved one—a boon for single parents and LGBTQ people, who often have non-traditional support networks.

Not having paid family leave made Elizabeth Halla-Mattingly feel like a bad daughter and an inadequate mother.

Halla-Mattingly choked up this week as she told Rewire.News about how helpless she felt in 2012 with her mother going through chemotherapy and her 7-month-old daughter sleeping less at night because she had to put her in daycare so she could care for her ailing mom.

“I could lose my oma, and then I had this little baby who just needs to be loved, and I was thinking, ‘How could I not meet that need to the best of my ability.’ So it was really hard and really intense,” she said.

Halla-Mattingly, 35, and a resident of New Britain, Connecticut, worked back then as a part-time crisis counselor for sexual assault victims, and she has spoken publicly about not having access to paid leave when she needed it the most. She and her daughter, now 7, have since collected signatures and testified for a comprehensive paid family and medical leave program. On Friday, when Connecticut became the seventh state to pass paid family and medical leave, they watched and celebrated.

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“I was there for the vote, and it was incredible,” Halla-Mattingly said.

Connecticut has long had a family and medical leave law that guaranteed time off but not with pay. The Democratic-controlled house rectified that by passing the bill last week in a 79-69 vote, about a week after state senate approval. Gov. Ned Lamont (D) has said he would sign it. “We all agreed on the need to pass this landmark support for working families, so they don’t have to choose between the job they need and the family they love, or their own health,” Lamont said in a statement.

Starting in July 2021, workers in Connecticut can get up to 12 weeks off to care for themselves, their family, or a loved one. An extra two weeks will be available for pregnancy-related complications. It will be funded by a weekly 0.5 percent payroll tax contributed by workers that will begin collecting next year, and will be overseen by a quasi-public authority, said Catherine Bailey, deputy director of the Connecticut Women’s Education and Legal Fund (CWELF), which has pushed for paid family leave in the state. 

The Massachusetts legislature passed paid family leave last year, and Vermont legislators are considering a similar bill this session, but Connecticut’s legislation goes far beyond what other states have done.

It has the most generous wage-replacement policy and would cover 95 percent of low-wage workers’ pay, up to $900 a week for up to 12 weeks, and includes a broad definition of a loved one covered under the policy, including siblings, grandparents, or anyone “equivalent of a family member,” even if the person is not of blood relation. This is a boon for single parents and LGBTQ people, who often have non-traditional support networks, advocates say.

Sarah Locke, 39, of New Haven, Connecticut, is among those who would benefit from the paid leave policy.

“The reason why I lobbied for this bill in Hartford is because I am queer and often the LGBTQ community has a different definition of family for necessary reasons—it’s not always a biological or legal family. I don’t have a partner right now, so my good friends are really my family,” she said. “I think if I got sick, that definition of extended family would be pretty important.”

Locke told Rewire.News she has worked in restaurants and real estate, in jobs that did not come with health care and leave benefits. It was always a strain to go through illnesses.

“It’s a very big deal for working people in Connecticut,” Lindsay Farrell, executive director of Connecticut Working Families, said. “Nobody should have to choose between their job and paycheck, and the health and well-being of their family. This gives economic security and job protection to workers when they need it most.”

Modeled after the recently changed definition of family in New Jersey and similar legislation in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, it is expected to be a national model, advocates say.

New Jersey, Rhode Island, New York, Washington state, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C., have all passed paid leave laws in the last decade. California was the first in 2002. Oregon lawmakers are considering one this year. In 2006, San Francisco was the first U.S. city to set a paid sick days standard, and employers have been required to offer earned paid leave since 2007. During the past five years, employment in San Francisco grew twice as fast as in neighboring counties that had no sick leave policy. Job growth was fast even in the food and hospitality sector, which is dominated by small businesses and viewed as vulnerable to additional costs. California lawmakers have since mandated paid sick leave a legal requirement statewide, and state legislators are considering extending labor protections to independent contractors like ride-share drivers.

Nationally, paid family leave remains out of reach for many. Twenty-five percent of people who work for private businesses that employ more than 500 workers have access to paid leave in the United States, according to federal statistics. Only 11 percent of those who work for private companies that employ less than 50 people have paid family leave benefits.

Halla-Mattingly said she’s glad families across Connecticut will no longer have to choose between having a job and the ability to care for themselves or their families.

“It’s normal to be scared about losing your jobs, it’s normal to be scared your boss may react poorly, but it’s okay to ask for help,” she said. “This is now your legal right, at least in Connecticut.”

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