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Politics

Maryland Democrats champion paid family and medical leave, vowing: ‘It’s going to pass this year’

Maryland Senate Democrats rallied Thursday in support of creating a statewide paid family and medical leave program, with Senate President Bill Ferguson vowing that legislation to create the program is “going to pass this year.”

The show of support adds political momentum to a proposal that’s drawn support from progressives in past years but stalled in the Maryland General Assembly in recent years over concerns about how to fund it.

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House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones previously listed passing a paid family and medical leave program among her top priorities for this year’s legislative session.

Current proposals would provide Maryland workers with 12 weeks of paid leave to recover from illness, have children, care for sick family members or prepare for a close relative’s military deployment. Businesses and workers would generally split the cost of the program, with both chipping in each paycheck to a state-run fund to pay out benefits.

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Benefits would pay a percentage of a worker’s wages while on leave, with the exact amount tied to a worker’s average previous earnings. Benefits would be capped at $1,000 a week.

The idea enjoys broad support in Maryland, at least in theory, with several polls showing strong support from voters as well as most Democratic lawmakers — who hold veto-proof majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly.

But disputes over how to divide the cost of paid leave benefits for millions of Maryland workers have derailed previous efforts to pass a program. Business groups have expressed concern over shouldering new taxes while worker advocates say putting too much of the tax burden on workers would make the program unfair and unaffordable.

Michael Ricci, a spokesman for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, expressed concerns about the proposed programs. Ricci said Hogan supports helping working families “but he will not consider costly proposals that hurt the smallest businesses, especially the mom and pop establishments.”

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Sen. Antonio Hayes, a Baltimore Democrat sponsoring one of the proposals, said Thursday that workers in Maryland are currently stuck with an inadequate patchwork of existing programs or employer benefits to navigate difficult family or health crises.

“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,” said Sen. Joanne Benson, a Prince George’s County Democrat who is co-sponsoring the legislation with Hayes.

Resident Lisa Barkan spoke of how fortunate she was to be able to take time off from work when her 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 2 1/2.

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

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Del. C.T. Wilson, a Charles County Democrat sponsoring legislation to create a program, said Thursday that he welcomes the public display of support from Democratic senators, but still expects difficult negotiations over the details before any program is passed.

“I’m hoping we can come to an agreement about what an equitable split [of the cost] is,” said Wilson, the chair of the House Economic Matters Committee. “I am confident that we’ll get this ball moving this year — but I’m not willing to bastardize our goals so that we can get just any old thing. If we make something that the employee can’t afford, what’s the point of doing this?”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.


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