It has been 30 years since the General Assembly enacted Connecticut’s Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). That law, in combination with the federal FMLA passed four years later, provides some Connecticut workers with the right to unpaid leave upon the birth or adoption of a child, in order to care for a seriously ill child, spouse or parent or because of the worker’s own serious health condition. When the law passed, supporters said no worker should have to choose between their job and their health, or the health of their family.
But the fact is that every year, many workers still face that impossible choice. In an economy in which too many are living paycheck to paycheck, workers caring for newborn children and parents with serious health problems must often keep working because they cannot afford to take leave.
The good news is that Gov. Ned Lamont and a majority of the legislature appear ready for Connecticut to join six other states and DC in enacting a Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML) program that can provide workers with the economic security to respond to health crises and the demands of family caregiving. The bad news is that the governor is considering contracting the program out to a private company.
The notion of privatizing public services is certainly not new. Our state government contracts out some commercial functions to private sector vendors when they have specialized expertise or capacity to deliver a particular product or service. But there are also certain responsibilities of government that are so intimately related to the public interest that we expect that they will be handled by accountable, trained public employees. A new form of social insurance funded by worker payroll taxes is exactly the kind of program that the public should expect – in fact, demand – be administered by an impartial government agency.
Legislators have thus far identified the state Department of Labor as the agency that would administer the new FMLI program, as other states have done.
Here are five reasons to stick with that choice:
Experience and expertise. A new FMLI program would bear many similarities to the unemployment insurance program operated for more than eighty years by the Labor Department. In each instance, the law provides benefits during periods of unemployment that help families remain economically afloat during trying times. Benefits are calculated based on past work and earnings histories and are funded by payroll taxes collected by the Department, while eligibility determinations are based on specific circumstances prescribed by law.
Economies of scale. Because the Department of Labor operates a system that handles hundreds of thousands of claims and pays out hundreds of millions in unemployment insurance annually, it already has an infrastructure which could provide a template for a new paid leave program.
The department is the sole repository for employee wages reported quarterly for the state’s workforce, the most important component in calculating PFML benefits. Payment by debit card and direct deposit, as well as tax withholding and fraud prevention systems are all successful program features that could be readily adapted for a PFML system.
Worker Privacy. Wage information is confidential under state law and Department of Labor employees know that there are criminal penalties for unauthorized disclosure. In addition, the administration of a new FMLI program will require handling of sensitive medical information. Are we ready to put the personal wage and medical information of Connecticut’s workers in the hands of the company that makes the lowest bid?
Enforcement track record. Since the early 1990s, the Labor Department has been enforcing the existing FMLA law that guarantees unpaid leave. The Department’s legal staff has resolved hundreds of disputes between employees and employers and formal decisions by the Labor Commissioner have been critical to interpreting the key provisions of the law that will underpin the new FMLI program.
Fairness and accountability. Family and medical leave insurance can be a critical economic stabilizer that will smooth the financial disruptions that so often wreak havoc with the budgets and well-being of families dealing with events as diverse as new life and critical health emergencies. But to make it work, we need to be sure that the law will be administered fairly and objectively by employees who are insulated from outside influence and are directly accountable to the public they serve, not to shareholders looking to make a profit.
By establishing paid family and medical leave insurance as a fundamental worker protection, Connecticut will be codifying its own family values. Let’s make sure we do it right.
George Wentworth is senior counsel with the National Employment Law Project. For 35 years, he worked for the Connecticut Department of Labor where he oversaw legal policy.
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