HELENA – Financed by a new state-run insurance fund, Montana would offer up to 12 weeks of paid leave to workers who need to care for a child or ailing family member, under a bill heard Monday at the Legislature.
Rep. Moffie Funk, D-Helena, said the plan will make Montana one of the leaders nationwide on the issue of paid leave, which is widely offered in most other industrialized countries, but not here.
“Families should not have to choose between taking care of each other or taking a financial dive,” she said. “The question is, do we work together to find a solution or do we just keep wringing our hands?”
Yet the state’s main business lobby, the Montana Chamber of Commerce, came out against Funk’s House Bill 208, saying it won’t work and will end up costing businesses money they can’t afford.
“If this program were to be implemented, it’s our position that the program costs would very quickly shift almost entirely to employers,” said Cary Hegreberg of the Chamber. “Our small employers are not capable of taking on this kind of burden, despite how much it might benefit employees.”
The House Business and Labor Committee heard HB208 Monday, but took no immediate action.
HB208 would create a fund financed by most employers and workers across the state, with a fee set by the state Labor Department. The fee could not be larger than 1% of any eligible employee’s monthly wages. Self-employed workers could opt into the fund.
The fund would grow to nearly $90 million by 2021, according to a fiscal analysis of the bill.
Workers could get up to 12 weeks of paid leave, financed by the fund, if they have a “serious health condition” or are caring for a new child in the family or a family member with a serious health condition. They must apply to the state Labor Department.
Hegreberg said there’s no way for the department to verify if someone has a sick relative, and that employers could constantly face the prospect of losing vital employees for months at a time – and be required to provide the same job when the worker returned from leave.
“It literally invites employees to find a sick relative somewhere to go and take care of them,” he said.
Funk said the business lobby could help fix whatever problems it sees in the bill, rather than “just standing opposed with hyperbolic cynicism.”
Numerous people and organizations favored the bill, including the Bullock administration and several persons who had to leave work to take care of loved ones in need.
Emilie Ritter Saunders of the Department of Commerce said Montanans had nearly $80 million in lost wages in 2017 because of unpaid parental leave, and that access to family leave would make Montana an attractive place for workers in a tight labor market.
Nina Heinzinger, a state employee in Helena, told the committee that she had both benefited from family leave and suffered from its lack.
She said she had to drive constantly to Missoula from Helena over several weeks, without paid leave, to help take care of her son after he had a traumatic brain injury in an accident – while maintaining a part-time job.
But this year, while working for the state, she had paid leave that allowed her to take care of her elderly mother, who died on Sunday.
“This type of leave made it possible for me to be with her while she suffered health problems and was placed in Hospice,” Heinzinger said, her voice breaking with emotion. “I was able to spend time with her as she lay dying. … Paid leave allowed me to focus on my family. I didn’t have to choose between money and my mom.”