Mass Senate Overrides Governor’s Veto on COVID Emergency Paid Sick Leave; Bill Prevents Unemployment Insurance Rate Hikes

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In full transparency, the following is a press release from Senate President’s Karen Spilka’s office

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BOSTON – Today, May 20, the Massachusetts State Senate gave final legislative approval to a bill to guarantee COVID emergency paid leave to workers, as well as avoid drastic unemployment insurance rate increases paid by employers.

The bill was back before the Legislature this week after having been returned by the Governor with an amendment.

Action by the Senate today will ensure that all Massachusetts employees, including frontline workers in hospitals and classrooms, will receive emergency leave for up to five paid days off for COVID-related concerns, including paid leave from work to attend a vaccine appointment.

“I’m thrilled that the Senate has once again led the way in support of working people,” stated Senate President Karen E. Spilka (D-Ashland). “COVID-related paid emergency leave has been my priority since the start of this session, and this bill will help us protect public health and safety as we continue to navigate this global pandemic. I’m proud to join my colleagues in ensuring that this critical support is extended to all workers of the Commonwealth, including teachers and first responders, who have endured so many challenges in the past year. I’m also glad that we were able to develop a technical fix to unemployment insurance which will save businesses, particularly small businesses, millions of dollars during a period of economic recovery.”

The bill now returns to the Governor’s desk.

“I am proud of the action taken by the Senate today to help small businesses and workers, while continuing to protect public health and supporting an equitable economic recovery as we continue to emerge from this pandemic,” stated Senator Michael J. Rodrigues (D-Westport), Chair of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means. “With the passage of this bill, we guarantee emergency paid leave to keep our essential frontline workers safe and stabilize our state’s unemployment insurance trust fund to bring critically needed relief to small businesses as reopening and recovery efforts continue to move forward. I want to thank Senate President Spilka for her leadership on these critical matters, along with Senators Lewis and Jehlen for their contributions to ensuring we address these issues with swift urgency.”

Massachusetts workers would be eligible for emergency paid leave should they be diagnosed with COVID-19, required to isolate, or need to care for a family member due to the virus. Building on efforts to increase vaccination rates in Massachusetts, employees would also be able to take emergency paid leave in order to receive a COVID vaccine, or if they have common vaccine side effects in the immediate days following the vaccine. This will ensure Massachusetts workers do not have to choose between a paycheck or access to the vaccine.  Employees taking COVID emergency leave would maintain all benefits to which they are entitled, such as health insurance, vacation leave, and sick leave.

“No worker in the Commonwealth should have to choose between earning a paycheck and protecting their own health or the health of a loved one,” said Senator Jason Lewis (D-Winchester). “I’m very grateful to Senate President Spilka, my House and Senate colleagues, the Raise Up Mass coalition, and business leaders for working together to create this important COVID-19 emergency paid leave program that will be especially helpful to low-income essential workers and will help hasten the end of the pandemic.”

As in previous versions of this legislation, employees are eligible for up to five days of paid leave, at their regular rate of pay, capped at $850 per week—the same maximum weekly benefit provided for in the Massachusetts Paid Family Medical Leave (PFML) law. Employers covered by federal legislation providing for paid leave will have the cost of providing such leave paid for through the federal tax credit. For all other employers, the bill creates a $75 million COVID-19 Emergency Paid Sick Leave Fund to reimburse eligible employers for providing their employees with emergency paid sick leave. The state requirement for paid leave would extend until September 30, 2021 or until the fund is exhausted.

“In order for us to fully recover from the pandemic, all Massachusetts workers need access to emergency paid sick time if they are sick with COVID-19, quarantined, or need to care for a sick family member,” said Deb Fastino, Executive Director of the Coalition for Social Justice and a member of the Raise Up Massachusetts Steering Committee. “Many essential frontline workers need paid sick time so they can recover from the side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine. We appreciate the legislature’s clear statement this week that all workers, including municipal employees, deserve access to emergency paid sick time.”

The legislation also answers calls to address unanticipated unemployment insurance (UI) rate spikes caused by increases to the solvency assessment. In cases where businesses are currently set to see dramatic increases in UI rates due to the pandemic, this bill would spread those costs over a 20-year period via a surcharge, effectively reducing rates in the near term and giving businesses additional relief as the pace of business in Massachusetts picks back up. This change builds on previous legislation passed this year by the Legislature to freeze the rate schedule for employers.

“It’s so important for us to take up this bill quickly so we can make sure our small businesses get the stability they need to get people back to work.” said Senator Patricia Jehlen (D- Somerville), the Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development.

“The bill will provide much-needed relief to Massachusetts employers who were blindsided by a massive increase in COVID-related unemployment insurance solvency assessments,” said Brooke Thomson, Executive Vice President of Government Affairs at Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM). The 3,300 member companies of Associated Industries of Massachusetts applaud the Senate for stabilizing the unemployment insurance system and helping companies to invest in their own economic recovery and hire more people. Likewise, AIM has been involved in conversations with the Senate for months around the COVID leave language; and we support efforts to allow sick workers to stay home and those seeking to get vaccinated time to do so, while making employers whole as well.”

During the COVID-19 public health crisis, the surge of pandemic-related unemployment claims raised concerns among employers regarding disproportionate rises to their unemployment claims costs.

To prevent such rises, the Legislature acted to insulate employers from employer-specific claims by temporarily diverting all COVID-related unemployment claims into a shared solvency account.

This legislation would move all such COVID-related UI claims filed through August 1, 2021 into a new COVID claims account, further stabilizing the state’s UI system by undoing the solvency- related rate spikes.

editor

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