Paid leave movement in CT doesn’t need Trump’s support
You might think President Donald Trump’s support for paid family leave would jack up the buzz about the battle in Connecticut, since it’s mostly Republicans opposing the long-fought plan.
Trump delivered one sentence in favor of paid leave in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, right after his nod to the ill-defined concept of “school choice.”
“I am also proud to be the first President to include in my budget a plan for nationwide paid family leave, so that every new parent has the chance to bond with their newborn child,” Trump said, winning applause from some Democrats.
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Having a conservative Republican president on-board is a linchpin giving Connecticut advocates the juice they need to send the bill over the top at the Capitol this year, right?
Not exactly. I spoke with several key supporters Wednesday and their reaction was basically, ho-hum.
It’s not that they don’t appreciate Trump’s blessing; they do. But this is the third year Trump has said it, in one venue or another. His proposal in the federal budget, starting in May, 2017, was a watered-down version of paid leave, not covering sickness or elder care, and it has never advanced.. The president has not, publicly at least, spent much effort to move it along.
In Connecticut, by contrast, advocates have the votes and the momentum to make it happen after years of falling short. Some version of paid family and medical leave will pass both houses of the Connecticut General Assembly this year and Gov. Ned Lamont will sign it, in all likelihood.
“I think it helps us,” Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, said of Trump’s support. “His mentioning of it in the State of the Union speech is an indicator of how popular an idea this is.”
But Kushner, a former top regional official at the United Auto Workers union who campaigned heavily on paid leave, suggested the issue helps Trump more than he helps it, at the state level anyway.
“He needs some of these popular ideas because he wants to resonate with working families,” Kushner said.
As it happened, Kushner, as co-chair of the General Assembly’s labor committee, along with Rep Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, submitted the committee’s version of the bill Wednesday. She didn’t watch the speech Tuesday night because, she said, she was working on final details — as if a hard-core liberal Democrat needed a reason not to tune in.
The plan in Connecticut, similar to last year’s version, carries the honorific designation Senate Bill 1. It calls for a payroll tax of 0.5 percent on wages and salaries up to the Social Security limit, $132,900. That amounts to $450 for a household with $90,000 in income.
That would pay for a program of about $460 million a year to finance and administer an estimated 100,000 paid leaves of up to 12 weeks, paying up to $1,000 a week, according to a 2014 implementation study.
Eligible workers would include not only new new parents but people with immediate family members needing care, and people who are sick themselves. Even this generous plan falls behind what most industrialized countries offer.
Opponents raise objections — chiefly the obvious, it’s a tax increase by another name — but they’re getting less traction at the Capitol these days. That’s partly because more states, especially in the Northeast, are adopting paid family and medical leaves, making Connecticut less of an outlier by adopting it, and more of an outlier by holding out.
“We showed in November,” said Madeline Granato, director of the Connecticut campaign and policy manager for the Connecticut Women’s Education and Legal Fund, “that this issue has broad support here.”
She was, of course, referring to the Democratic sweep of the governor’s office and both chambers in the General Assembly, in a year when two Democratic skeptics of paid leave left the senate, replaced by supporters.
Granato was even more blasé than Kushner about Trump’s backing. “I don’t think it does anything to hurt or even help the issue,” she said, noting that paid leave tops the agendas for leaders in both the House and the Senate.
Paid leave remains a risk in Connecticut because this state is on every watch list for tax increases, and make no mistake, this insurance payment is also a tax. States with paid leave include New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Washington, California and Hawaii, as well as the District of Columbia. Vermont, Maine and even cranky New Hampshire have bills pending.
Most of those states pay for their leaves with a combination of payroll deductions and levies on employers, similar to unemployment insurance, as Trump proposed for the federal government. We’ve avoided an employer tax to gain more support.
Republican leaders have proposed a voluntary leave program with tax credits for companies that offer it — a system that favors big companies over small ones, advocates say.
Ultimately, the question is whether paid leave will help Connecticut attract and keep more young professionals. If it does, it will be an economic success. Granato sent me a study from 2017 showing 77 percent of small business owners in Connecticut support it, 46 percent strongly — and the more they learn about it, the more they like it.
That’s what Rick Santorum, a CNN analyst and former Republican senator from Pennsylvania and presidential contender, said on CNN after the State of the Union speech. “They say ‘Oh, that’s a terrible idea,’ and then you walk them through it, and they say ‘Oh, that makes sense.’”
What makes the most sense is a federal policy, as with a livable minimum wage. But that’s not going to happen.
I was very skeptical. Then I asked my 23-year-old daughter, who lives and works in Boston, whether paid leave would give her a reason to come back to Connecticut. That’s not any more likely to happen than a federal $15 minimum wage, but she said yes, it would entice her.