Maryland lawmakers voice support for paid family leave bill

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Sen. Antonio Hayes, a Baltimore Democrat, stands with fellow Maryland Senate Democrats in support of legislation he is sponsoring to create a paid family and medical leave program in the state during a news conference on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022 in Annapolis, Md. (AP Photo/Brian Witte)

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Maryland Democrats expressed their resolve Thursday to approve a paid family and medical leave insurance program in the state this year, with Senate President Bill Ferguson saying emphatically: “It’s going to pass this year.”

The measure, which also has support in the House of Delegates, would provide 12 weeks of paid leave for Maryland workers with specified personal or family circumstances, such has caring for a sick relative or having a baby.

While the proposal has stalled in past years, supporters say the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated how badly the program is needed. The weekly benefit would be based on an individual’s average weekly wage, subject to a cap.

Sen. Antonio Hayes, a Baltimore Democrat who is sponsoring the legislation, said Maryland and many other states already wrestle with convoluted workarounds and confusing administrative leave policies that need updating.

“While some states and corporations and nearly every other developed country on the globe have taken a purposeful and strategic approach to family leave, Maryland has remained behind – stuck in a framework from the past that ignores the realities that the modern work place and workforce have,” Hayes said with most of his fellow Senate Democrats by his side.

Lisa Barkan spoke of how fortunate she was to be able to take time off from work when who young son Alex was ill with a rare liver disease. The time enabled her to care for him and be with him when he died at the age of two and a half.

“No one, no one, should ever have to choose between having a job and taking care of themselves or their loved ones,” Barkan said. “I cannot imagine losing any of that time and no one should.”

The program would cover an employee who takes leave to care for family members, or has a serious health condition of his or her own. It also would apply to a qualifying need that results from a family member’s military deployment. The legislation would create a fund, and contributions would be shared between employers and employees, based on employee wages.

The Maryland Chamber of Commerce is opposing the legislation. Mary Kane, the chamber’s president and CEO, said while the organization is not against the concept, the Maryland legislation goes too far and did not include input from employers, many of whom are struggling to recover from the pandemic and can’t afford the cost now.

“This legislation is not the way to go,” Kane said in an interview. “This is too onerous on our employers here in the state.”

Sen. Joanne Benson, a Prince George’s County Democrat who is sponsoring the bill with Hayes, said paid family leave should not be viewed as a privilege, but a necessity.

“Single parents in particular have experienced an economic and physical strain. Many are forced to choose to work and pay for basic needs or to take leave to nurse ill family members, but with the threat of losing their jobs,” Benson said.

Seven states and the District of Columbia have paid family and medical leave insurance programs, including California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Washington. Colorado and Oregon have approved programs that have not started yet.