A slew of bills on significant issues — with significant details still to be worked out — survived the first 69 days and countint of analysis in the Maryland General Assembly, including the flurry of activity that accompanied “Crossover Day” on Monday, passing through one legislative chamber to the next for consideration. Among the topics with differing visions from legislators: abortion rights, climate change mitigation and how to divvy up $350 million worth of planned tax relief. But perhaps the biggest surprise is the chasm between the Maryland House and Senate chambers regarding state-wide paid family and medical leave, a subject that’s been under discussion for years and the focus of work groups, studies and prior failed legislation.
This was supposed to be the year all that earlier work finally came to fruition with the passage of a multi-billion-dollar social insurance program. The concept has the support of both Senate President Bill Ferguson, who last month vowed to pass it in 2022, and House Speaker Adrienne Jones, who listed its passage as a top priority this legislative session. State polls also show strong support from voters, if not necessarily the business community, which has raised concerns about costs and filling positions vacated by those on leave.
Yet the House now wants to pause to create another study commission to further research best practices and make recommendations before implementing a program, which has paid leave advocates concerned it spells the end for a 2022 passage. That would be a particularly bitter pill to swallow in a year with a record budget surplus and amid an ongoing pandemic, which has proven — better than any study could — the necessity of paid leave: More than 14,000 Marylanders have died from COVID-19, and more than 1 million have been diagnosed with it, some developing long-term, debilitating effects.
So, if not now, when?
While it’s understandable that details are still under discussion, it’s incomprehensible that the program might be punted yet again. It makes sense, it’s popular, and it’s the right thing to do — both for Maryland employees, who deserve to know they can take time off to care for a new baby or deal with a medical emergency and still receive a portion of their earnings, and for Maryland employers, who need to remain competitive in the job market.
The United States is an outlier among developed countries in not offering a national paid leave policy, forcing individual businesses, like Legg Mason, and states to take up the cause. Already nine states — including New Jersey, Connecticut and California — and the District of Columbia have put policies on the books; Maryland should make it an even 10. This year.
The leave program proposal here would allow for 12 weeks of paid medical leave — for the worker or to care for an ailing family member — and an additional 12 weeks paid parental leave to care for a newborn. That much most legislators agree on. But who pays the bulk (employer versus employee), who’s eligible, who can opt out, who oversees it, how big the benefit and how big the contribution is all unresolved.
The Senate version of the bill caps the contribution rate from workers at a maximum of 0.75% of their wages (about $7 per week for someone earning $50,000 annually) and requires workers to pay three quarters of the program’s cost, with the other 25% coming from their employers; that’s a shift from the original 50/50 split proposed in January. It would be overseen by the Department of Labor and require even the smallest of businesses, those with at least one employee, to participate. Maryland workers who put in at least 680 hours the prior year would be eligible to begin receiving benefits — aka partial pay — as early as January 2025. The legislation also calls for an actuarial study to be performed and finished by October of this year to get a better grip on the financials and leaves flexibility for changes as needed.
House members have concerns about the contribution rate, the ratio of contributions and about putting the Department of Labor in charge after it struggled to administer unemployment benefits during the pandemic. Still, the House’s proposed study commission calls for putting a framework in place by next year and benefit disbursal as early as June 2024. They’re just missing the actual passage of the program.
And after all this time, that’s not acceptable. If House members want it, as they say they do, the time to do it is now — not a year or two from now, when a new legislature and governor are seated.
This is generational change, and there’s a way to implement it that doesn’t break business. There are still nearly three weeks left on the legislative clock to hammer out details. It’s not a lot of time, but it’s enough. Don’t leave such an important issue up to others to get done.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.