By Chris Van Buskirk
State House News Service
Workers in Massachusetts can take up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave to care for a seriously ill or injured family member as the last portion of a 2018 law instituting paid family and medical leave went into effect Thursday.
The law is designed to ensure workers do not miss out on wages while they take care of ill family members or a new child. It was originally passed and signed into law in June 2018 and has been phased in incrementally since January.
Christine Lavault of Fairhaven said when her husband, a Korean War veteran, found out he had lung cancer she had to continue working because she was the only source of income.
“If I had paid family leave, I could have taken him to the doctors. I could have fought for him,” she said. “I am so glad that we have it now because he was my special man, he was my love. And if I could have been there for him, it would have been wonderful. And people need to take care of their family, people need to take care of their loved ones.”
Lavault joined other supporters of the law for a press conference hosted by Raise Up Massachusetts outside the state McCormack Building Thursday to celebrate the full implementation of paid family and medical leave.
The law defines family members as a worker’s spouse or domestic partner, children, parents, grandchildren, siblings, or a spouse or domestic partner’s parents.
When caring for a family member with a serious health condition, the law says activities can include providing daily living needs that the family member cannot perform, providing transportation to the doctor or other facilities, taking them to therapy or medication appointments, and making arrangements for changes in care, according to the law.
Those who take paid leave are eligible to receive wage replacement benefits that are calculated as a percentage of their regular income, up to a maximum of $850 a week. Sen. Jason Lewis said since the start of January, 31,000 Massachusetts residents have taken parental leave or leave for a serious medical condition.
“As of today, of course, more people, many more people will be able to benefit from caregiver leave as well. This is an economic justice issue,” the Winchester Democrat said. “This is also a program that levels the playing field, particularly for our small businesses, and makes Massachusetts a more competitive place to be able to attract and retain talent, and grow businesses.”
The program is funded through an up to 0.75 percent state wage tax on certain employees and, potentially, their employers. The amount varies depending on how much is contributed by each party but the maximum that could be taken out of paycheck is $0.38 per $100, according to the state.
Beth Fauteaux, a member of the Coalition for Social Justice, said she was pregnant with her son in 2013 and after giving birth found herself going back to work three weeks after undergoing a caesarean section.
“It was either that or be homeless. At the time, it felt like nobody cared, that I didn’t pull myself up by my bootstraps enough,” she said. “But it turns out that a lot of people did care. And when Coalition for Social Justice came through and gathered signatures and got this policy through, it made me realize that I am the 99 percent, I’m not alone.”
Growing tired of inaction on Beacon Hill as legislators worked to assemble a bill that included the paid leave program and raised the hourly minimum wage, advocacy and interest groups started a drive in 2018 to force the measure onto the ballot.
Raise Up Massachusetts said they collected over 135,000 signatures during that period. The Legislature ended up passing the bill in June 2018.
A majority of the law went into effect in January, including taking up to 12 weeks to care for a new child, 12 weeks for family needs of an active duty service member, 20 weeks for a serious personal illness or injury, and 26 weeks for a seriously ill or injured service member.
Senate President Karen Spilka said when she had her first son in 1986 she was working for the state in the McCormack Building, just across the street from the State House.
“I had zero leave, zero paid leave. The first day I came back after a few months, I cried. I wasn’t ready to come back but we couldn’t afford anything more,” the Ashland Democrat said. “I cried. Two years later, I had my second son, same thing. I took off for several months, came back and found it very difficult and I vowed if I was ever in the position to change that, I would.”