Workers in Connecticut can now apply for a new paid family and medical leave program, which will allow people to cover basic living expenses if they take time off of work to raise a child or care for a sick relative.
Gov. Ned Lamont, several key members of his administration and a handful of state Democratic lawmakers officially announced the opening of the new program on Wednesday in downtown New Haven and celebrated the effort as a significant expansion of the state’s social safety net.
The state government, they said, has already raised more than $300 million for the program through a new payroll tax that gets deducted from employees’ paychecks. That money, which could grow to more than $410 million by the end of January, should be enough to launch the program and help keep it solvent long into the future, they said.
The opening of the enrollment process comes more than two years after the Democratic-controlled legislature and Lamont passed a sought-after family and medical leave law in 2019.
“We are delighted to offer this to workers in the state of Connecticut,” said Andrea Barton Reeves, the CEO of the Connecticut Paid Family and Medical Leave Insurance Authority.
Many of the Democratic politicians in attendance in New Haven billed the paid leave benefits as a significant improvement in the lives of low-income workers and middle-class employees who can’t always afford to leave a job in order to care for their loved ones.
Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz, a Democrat, said the rollout of the paid leave program was evidence of the state’s “family-friendly” policies. The benefits the state is now offering, she said, should help workers avoid impossible choices over whether to keep their jobs and income or to care for a newborn child or elderly parent.
That’s a dilemma that people should not have to grapple with in a developed country like the United States, said Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven. Yet Connecticut is only the eighth state in the nation to enact a paid family and medical leave program.
During the debate in the legislature in 2019, Looney said there were lawmakers who opposed the passage of the paid leave bill as an unneeded expansion of the state bureaucracy. But now that the program is up and running, Looney argued that it will show that state government can and should play a role in making people’s lives better.
“There is a role for government in enlightened social policy,” Looney said, “and this is one of those times.”
Josh Geballe, who serves as Lamont’s Chief Operating Officer, pointed out that it is very difficult to create a brand-new social program from scratch, especially one as complicated as paid family and medical leave. But he emphasized that the state did exactly that in less than two years.
“It’s on budget. It’s on time,” Lamont told a crowd of reporters in New Haven.
One Republican leader in the Legislature, however, warned Democratic lawmakers not to celebrate just yet. Rep. Vincent Candelora, the Republican leader in the House, said it was too early for state leaders to “take a victory lap” when none of the applications for the paid leave program have been processed yet.
“Let’s see what those expected growing pains are and, more important, what the program’s impact will be on businesses that already face struggles in finding people to fill open jobs,” Candelora said.
Anyone who wants to apply for the paid leave program can do so by phone, email, fax, mail or through an online website. The first applicants could see their benefits start to roll in sometime in late January, according to state officials.
Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, hopes that extra line of protection for workers in Connecticut will help boost worker morale and the economy in the state. The coronavirus pandemic, other lawmakers added, showed exactly how many workers needed the extra security that the program can deliver.
“We’ve given the people something they very much needed,” said Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury.