Cynthia Browning: I voted for paid family and medical leave - but

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Rep. Cynthia Browning

I voted to put in place a state program for Paid Family and Medical Leave that would help many Vermonters when they most need that help. The PFML program that I supported would provide four weeks of paid leave for an employee to care for a new baby, to care for a family member, or to care for themselves when they are injured or ill and unable to work. Some Vermonters already have access to such paid leaves through their employers' benefits. But most Vermont workers only have the federally mandated twelve weeks of unpaid family and medical leave.

This new program would provide paid leave to a worker with the benefit based on a percentage of wages. People working 20 hours a week or more would be automatically enrolled unless they choose to opt out. - this is important because although most Vermonters want this benefit and are willing to pay for it, some do not. Employers could choose to pay some or all of the payroll premium.

The program would be administered by a private insurance company. It would cost perhaps $45 million per year. About 15,000 Vermonters would take this kind of leave each year.

For a Vermonter earning $40,000 a year, the benefit amount would be around $746 a week. The benefit would be capped at $1,334 a week. The program would be paid for with a payroll premium that would probably be around .4% of a person's wages up to a certain limit. For a person earning $40,000, this would be a premium of $160 a year.

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This proposal needs further analysis, but it holds the promise of a financially sustainable, flexible and equitable program. Many Vermonters could be helped without forcing those who do not want this insurance to pay for it.

Unfortunately, the program for which I voted did not pass the Vermont House. Instead, the version that passed as H.107 contains a program that offers the same benefit level but for 12 weeks leave for new parents and for 8 weeks each for family or own medical leave. It is estimated that the program that passed would cost around $80 million a year. It would be financed with a payroll tax of .55 percent of wages, which would be $220 a year for someone earning $40,000 a year. Participation in the program is mandatory: there is no opt out.

This program is therefore inequitable because every worker will pay the tax, whether or not they want it. Based on available data perhaps over 80,000 Vermonters who do not want this benefit will be forced to pay the tax. It is also inequitable that anyone who does not work enough in hours or wages to qualify for benefits will still pay the tax. This would likely include teenagers and retirees who work part-time or seasonally. In addition, under the program that passed a person could get this paid leave when they are not actually employed and working. That makes no sense to me.

The longer paid leaves in the program that passed would be useful for some, but I think it is essential to start this program small because of uncertainty about costs. Another issue is that many Vermonters will never take those longer leaves of eight or twelve weeks because they have no legal guarantee that they will get a job back afterward. Job protection is only provided if a person works for an employer with 10 or more workers. Employers with fewer than ten workers might be able to hold a job for someone for a month, but for three months? Not as likely.

So I voted for a modest Paid Family and Medical Leave program that would provide this benefit sustainably and equitably. The program that passed instead uses up so much of Vermonters' capacity to pay taxes that I believe it will make it harder to fund the other competing needs facing the state. Better to start small with this new benefit, and to provide a choice about participation.

Cynthia Browning represents Arlington, Sandgate and Manchester in the state House of Representatives.


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