State Workers Union: Don’t Tax Our Members for New Paid Family and Medical Leave Program

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By Colin A. Young

Unsatisfied with the progress or lack thereof at the bargaining table, the state’s largest public employee union last week called on Governor Charlie Baker’s administration to exempt state employees from having to pay into the state’s new paid family and medical leave program.

Through a senior aide, the Baker administration responded by accusing the union of a political attack and asserting that public employees are trying to push costs onto the backs of taxpayers.

The National Association of Government Employees, which represents 22,000 state employees, issued a press release highly critical of Baker’s management on Wednesday, September 4 in which the union argued that its members should not have to contribute to the estimated $800 million paid family and medical leave program that’s being launched so workers can more easily take care of themselves and their families without facing financial crises.

“Since the law specifically exempts employers who provide leave benefits equal to the law, NAGE’s firm position is that our members should be exempt from the program and potential tax implications,” the union wrote.

David Holway, president of the National Association of Government Employees, told State House News Service that his union has gone through “months of fruitless negotiations” with the Baker administration over the implementation of the leave program. He said benefits provided under NAGE’s union contract are more generous than the state program, and that many of his members are unlikely to access the benefits provided by the new state program.

“Because of our collective bargaining agreement, none or very few of our members will ever be able to participate in that program,” Holway said. He later clarified that National Association of Government Employees members are eligible for the state benefits, but would not fare as well under the state program as they would if they used their sick time.

“We have sick time and we’ve got other types of leave and the [state] benefits are limited to $850 per week and the vast majority of our members make more than that. So if you can collect on your earned time at $1,000 per week, why would you take [the state benefit] at $850?” he said. “We have a collective bargaining agreement that calls for certain benefits. We’ve negotiated that over many long years and many long hours and our benefits are better than the [state] plan.”

The state program’s leave benefits are to be funded through mandatory employer contributions to a new trust and employers can require that their employees contribute up to 40 percent of their total medical leave contribution and up to 100 percent of their total family leave contribution.

Baker’s Executive Office of Administration and Finance said the state, unlike municipalities, is not exempt from the law. That secretariat has been negotiating with National Association of Government Employees and other unions since April to agree to the rates that employees and the commonwealth will pay.

“The Baker-Polito Administration is committed to implementing the paid family and medical leave law, a law that organized labor campaigned for years to enact. The Administration will continue to work with all stakeholders to implement this program equitably for state employees while not forcing taxpayers to pick up a greater share of the cost, despite the union’s demands to do so,” state Administration and Finance spokesman Julie Mehegan told State House News Service. “The Administration hopes the union will engage in serious negotiations to help their members continue serving the people of this Commonwealth and not resort to petty, political attacks in an attempt to force taxpayers to fund these benefits.”

The commonwealth itself — the largest single employer in Massachusetts — will be among the employers paying into the family and medical leave trust fund. The Executive Office of Administration and Finance previously estimated the state’s contribution at $18 million annually.

Holway said the state should cover all of its employees’ family and medical leave contributions, pointing to last fiscal year’s revenues that came in nearly $2 billion ahead of targets and July revenue collections that were up 6 percent over the previous July.

“If he wants them in there, he should pay for it. Yet he’s hell-bent and determined to tax our people,” Holway said, referring to Baker. He said the National Association of Government Employees has met “periodically” with the administration and has asked them to explain “why this should be a benefit to our members.”

“Quite honestly, they haven’t been able to do that,” he said.

The Massachusetts Department of Family and Medical Leave planned to begin collecting a 0.63 percent payroll tax from employers July 1 to fund the program, but business and advocacy groups raised concerns about their ability to prepare for the new tax and the state delayed the tax until October 1.

With the delay, the state also increased the tax rate by 19 percent — from 0.63 percent to 0.75 percent — to allow the state to collect the same amount of money it anticipates needing for the first year of benefits — about $1.4 billion — but in three months less time. The delay was jointly agreed to by the various organizations that negotiated the grand bargain and was approved by the Legislature, though Baker had said his administration was ready to go with the original implementation date.

Holway and the National Association of Government Employees seized on the delay in implementing the new payroll tax and the higher rate in the union’s press release, writing that when it comes to Baker’s ability to effectively run state government “the Emperor has no clothes.”

“Take your pick, from the RMV to the MBTA to the state police overtime scandal, and now the botched rollout of this new leave law, Governor Baker has gone from one disaster to another,” the National Association of Government Employees wrote. “It is now crystal clear that Governor Baker is more interested in taking selfies with voters and winning a popularity contest than actually doing the hard job of governing the Commonwealth.”

The National Association of Government Employees has not been a fan of Baker or his administration. The union pushed to block state health insurance savings Baker proposed in 2015; disinvited Baker’s former Harvard Pilgrim co-worker Roberta Herman, the current executive director of the state’s Group Insurance Commission, from a union event over the union’s outrage at the commission’s handling of its state employee health plan consolidation in early 2018; endorsed Democrat Jay Gonzalez’s campaign for governor last year; and last month bashed the administration for naming two Registry of Motor Vehicles employees in an audit of the agency.

The new paid family and medical leave law, part of the June 2018 “grand bargain” law, calls for up to 12 weeks of job-protected paid leave to care for a seriously ill or injured family member, to care for a new child, or to meet family needs arising from a family member’s active-duty military service. It also authorizes up to 20 weeks of job-protected paid leave to recover from a worker’s own serious illness or injury, or to care for a seriously ill or injured service member.

Benefits will become available on January 1, 2021 for workers seeking time off to bond with a new child, take care of a sick or injured service member, or to tend to a serious personal health condition. On July 1, 2021, benefits will be made available for workers to care for a family member with a serious health condition.