Legislature is best forum to address family-medical leave, minimum wage issues

By Liz Malia

Today in Massachusetts, 1.2 million workers risk losing employment if they take time off work to care for a new child or to address a family medical emergency. Too many people are working every hour they can but still cannot get ahead, and a family emergency can quickly turn into a financial disaster.

The current federal law, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), allows certain workers to take up to 12 weeks unpaid leave a year to care for a newborn, adopted or foster child, a family member, or for the employee’s own medical condition. FMLA guarantees that you can return to your job at the end of a leave. It is a minimum standard, and many states have chosen to expand either the amount of leave available or the types of eligible employees.

In Massachusetts, the FMLA applies to private employers with 50 or more employees, public agencies, including local, state, and federal government agencies, and public or private elementary and secondary schools. Only 60 percent of Massachusetts employees are covered in these classes. That means that under current state and federal law, 40 percent of Massachusetts workers can only access one week of paid sick leave, perhaps 24 hours of small necessities leave, and 8 weeks of unpaid parental leave, but have no other options to manage their own extended illness, or that of a family member. For many FMLA-eligible employees, finances are so tight that 12 weeks without pay isn’t survivable. That’s why it is so important to raise the minimum wage and to create a leave insurance program at the same time.

You may have a chance to vote on a $15 minimum wage raise and paid family and medical leave insurance program in the November 2018 election. The Raise Up MA coalition organized, educated, and collected the signatures to make these two ballot questions possible. The minimum wage question would raise the wage floor by $1 per year until workers earn $15 an hour in 2022. It would also raise the minimum wage tipped employees can earn by $1.30 per year until they earn $9 an hour. All minimum wage raises after 2022 would be linked to inflation.

The Paid Family and Medical Leave ballot question creates an insurance program for most Massachusetts workers that pays 90 percent of earnings for up to 16 weeks of leave when needed and up to 26 weeks of leave to recover from a worker’s own serious illness or injury. As with FMLA, this proposed ballot question guarantees the right to return to your job at the end of leave.

I believe such policy changes would do more than just benefit caretakers and their families. Businesses would also benefit because their employees would be healthier and more productive while higher wages would help limit employee turnover. Reduction in worker turnover would make it easier for employers to recruit and retain workers, ultimately generating savings.

I say that you may have a chance to vote on these two family-friendly policies. The Legislature can make these two changes to law before the end of April. If we do not, then petitioners must gather more signatures to finalize the questions’ appearance on the November ballot.

I fully support the ballot initiative process; however, I believe the Legislature is a better forum for handling complex issues like medical leave insurance. We ought to do our best to ensure the full benefits of paid family leave and an increase in the minimum wage for all workers.

I look forward to working with my colleagues to realize these practical and important policies. We owe a debt of thanks to the determined advocates and members of Raise Up MA. The community organizers, faith group, and unions who formed Raise Up MA are fighting for vital policies for our workers and for an economy that works for everyone.

Liz Malia is a state representative for the 11th Suffolk district.