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Senate passes paid family leave bill despite veto threat

Senate passes paid family leave bill despite veto threat

Despite a veto threat from Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont, the Senate advanced legislation Wednesday that would create a paid family medical leave insurance program, with proponents arguing it’s desperately needed by Connecticut workers who can’t afford to take time off to care for a loved one or themselves.

The bill cleared the Democratic-controlled Senate on a mostly partisan 21-15 vote. It came hours after Lamont expressed concern that the legislation included a “top heavy” governing body, which he warned was not a “recipe for success” for the proposed $400 million initiative.

Senate leaders, however, insisted they couldn’t delay the vote.

“We have to run this bill,” said Majority Leader Bob Duff of Norwalk. “We have a lot of people counting on us to run this bill today.”

The legislation now moves to the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, which has until the General Assembly’s June 5 adjournment deadline, to act.

Under the bill, wage replacement benefits would be funded through a 0.5% payroll tax on nearly all Connecticut employees, with the exception of certain state employees. Eligible individuals would receive partial wage coverage while they take up to 12 weeks off from work to care for themselves during a serious illness, for a loved one or newborn. The bill provides an additional two weeks of coverage for serious health conditions during pregnancy and covers medical leave needed for organ or bone marrow donations.

Beginning Jan. 1, 2022, the maximum weekly benefit cannot exceed 60 times the state’s minimum wage, which is scheduled to incrementally climb to $15 under a bill Lamont has said he’ll sign into law. Senate Democrats said that means the maximum benefit will be $780 a week in 2022 when the minimum wage will be $13; $840 when the minimum wage increases to $14 later that year: and $900 in 2023 when the minimum wage increases to $15.

Throughout Wednesday’s hours-long debate, lawmakers recounted emotional, personal stories about struggling to balance work responsibilities with the care of a loved one. Democratic Sen. Julie Kushner of Danbury, the co-chair of the Labor and Public Employees Committee, said the bill makes sure Connecticut workers “don’t have to pick between their family members and a paycheck.”

While many Republican senators said they support the concept of paid family medical leave, they criticized the Democratic plan for being both mandatory and creating what they consider to be a costly bureaucracy. The GOP offered an alternative plan that would be optional. It was pitched as a private solution to the problem. Their proposal, which the Senate defeated on Wednesday as an amendment, would have allowed group short-term disability insurance products in Connecticut to include family leave income protection coverage. Their proposal would have also allowed all employers to offer those plans to their workers as a benefit. Additionally, employers could have purchased such plans in other states and possibly save on cost.

Republican Senate Leader Len Fasano of North Haven said the Democrats’ bill represents an attitude that government knows better than its citizens.

“We’re going to go into your pocket. We’re going to take your wages,” he said. “We know better than you what you should be doing with your life, so let us control your life.”

Lamont’s veto threat marked one of the first public disagreements between the new governor and Democratic legislative leaders. Lamont said he was taken by surprise after learning the Senate planned to hold a vote Wednesday, saying he believed more negotiations were forthcoming.

After the vote, Lamont made it clear he supports the concept of paid family medical leave, including the payroll deduction. But the former businessman expressed concern the legislation would discourage private insurance companies from bidding on the project, leaving it to become a state-run enterprise by default.

“We need to make sure this program is solvent, efficiently administered and nimble enough to adapt and adjust as needed, particularly in its first few, crucial years,” he said in a written statement. “I don’t believe the legislation, as currently drafted, will allow for that.”

Senate Democrats suggested Lamont’s concerns might be addressed in another bill, passed before the current legislative session ends or before the program begins paying out benefits in about two-and-a-half years.

“I would urge our governor: stay at the table, work with us,” said Democratic Sen. Derek Slap of West Hartford. “We share the same values and we want to get this passed.”