As we’ve noted previously, the 210-page trailer bill that the Legislature tacked onto the budget and that Gov. Chris Sununu signed enacts many unrelated and reprehensible laws that commit the state to a divisive course. Included in the bill, though, was a significant policy initiative that is promising enough to say it’s at least an initial step in the right direction — the paid family leave program that was shoehorned into the final pages of the trailer bill.
Paid family leave has become increasingly recognized as a desirable workplace benefit, enabling employees to address critical family situations, such as the birth or adoption of a child or a family member’s or, in some cases, the employee’s own serious medical condition. Federal and other legislation has long shielded employees from losing their jobs if they take unpaid leave for such reasons, but many can’t afford the lost wages if the leave’s unpaid, leaving families exposed at particularly critical times.
For that reason, there’s been an increasing call for states to implement programs where insurance premiums subsidize a portion of the wages that would otherwise be lost during a family leave. With so many two-worker families and working single parents, it’s a sensible and even necessary approach to help families through especially stressful times, and, indeed, the Biden administration has called for a nationwide program.
The New Hampshire legislation would begin addressing this need — but only sort of. It clearly acknowledges the importance of paid family leave, citing a host of its desirable “social benefits,” including attracting and retaining workers, including younger ones, enabling new-child bonding for parents, addressing the needs of an aging population, and enhancing workplace stability, retention and productivity.
Those were certainly the benefits articulated by Democrats in the preceding Legislature they controlled when they passed their plan, which, like other states that have adopted paid family leave, would extend it to all. Sununu vetoed that plan, disingenuously branding it an income tax, and advocated a voluntary approach. That has now been enacted as the Granite State Paid Family Leave Plan.
Under the plan, participating employees could receive up to 60 percent of their wages for up to six weeks for leave due to the birth, adoption or foster placement of a child, to care for a family member’s serious health condition (including addiction or a mental health condition) or to address a service member’s foreign deployment or serious injury or illness. As in other states, the benefits will be paid under private insurance that the state will need to purchase. Since with insurance, the broader the risk pool is, the better the pricing, the state will put all of its employees in the program.
What’s unique about the New Hampshire approach is that participation for anyone else is voluntary. Private and other non-state public employers with over 50 employees may also sign on to the coverage. To incentivize employers to do so, they will receive a business enterprise tax credit of 50 percent of their family leave coverage premiums. Employees of those that don’t opt in or those employing 50 or fewer may also choose to purchase individual coverage at a premium cost of no more than $260 per year.
There remains much that’s uncertain. The state has not run actuarial analyses of the plan, N.H. Bulletin recently reported, and insurance company proposals and pricing terms aren’t due until next March, with the program set to launch on Jan. 1, 2023. Even then, much will depend on how much voluntary participation the program attracts. If the pool isn’t broad enough, the program’s costs may increase, which could lead a future Legislature to cut back on it. And Sununu, who is widely thought to be planning a run for Senate next fall, has deftly set it up so that he can trumpet the plan’s adoption but will likely have no accountability for it.
Given the many benefits of paid family leave that even the current Legislature has acknowledged, making it available to all is a smarter choice — for families and for New Hampshire. Still, the Granite State plan is a start and, if the pricing proves attractive enough, may move the state well in the right direction. Further enhancing its appeal is that individuals who buy into the program will also receive paid benefits for leave due to their own serious health conditions, which employees of the state and other employers participating in the program won’t.
New Hampshire prides itself on its contrarian approach — often for better, and sometimes for worse. Which it will be for its voluntary paid family leave program won’t be known for some time.