Putting them at odds with Gov. Charlie Baker and a municipal trade group, House Speaker Ron Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka intend to preserve eligibility for municipal employees in an emergency COVID-19 sick leave program that the Legislature is working to finalize and return to the governor's desk.
Baker has proposed several amendments to the sick leave program that the Legislature tried to include in a larger unemployment tax relief package, most of which the governor signed off on last Friday.
Many of the recommended changes remain under review, but Democratic legislative leadership said late Wednesday they do not intend to go along with Baker's proposal to change employee eligibility for the leave program.
One of the governor's amendments would exclude municipal workers, including teachers, public works employees, police and others. The administration said the change would align COVID-19 sick leave with the state's Paid Family and Medical Leave program, which allows cities and towns to opt in instead.
Democratic leaders on Beacon Hill told the News Service that municipal employees deserve to take advantage of the program, which would provide up to five days of paid time off for full-time employees who are sick with COVID-19, isolating, taking time off to get vaccinated or caring for a family member ill with the virus.
"Our municipal employees, including our teachers and first responders, have been essential to the state's COVID-19 response. We were disappointed to see Governor Baker's amendment to exclude them from paid sick leave benefits," Mariano and Spilka told the News Service in response to questions about the program.
"The House and the Senate continue to believe that paid sick leave will protect our communities by preventing the further spread of COVID-19, and our municipal employees deserve the same access to it as other workers. We are committed to returning this legislation back to the Governor's desk with municipal employees included," the Democratic leaders said.
The Baker administration defended the amendment, arguing that cities and towns tend to have "highly unionized" employees with strong leave protections in place already, and many can access federal funds to implement their own leave programs that could align with the state and federal leave guarantees.
The recommendation from the governor's office was also made to the Legislature with the blessing of the Massachusetts Municipal Association.
"When the Governor's office consulted with us on the bill, we shared that our preference was that the adoption of expanded leave benefits should be at the option of municipalities, as cities and towns already have generous sick leave policies in place, compared to the private sector, which is where gaps exist for workers," MMA Executive Director Geoff Beckwith said.
But unions, including the Massachusetts Teachers Association, criticized the decision to carve municipalities out of the program that would be offered to other public employees who work for the state, as well as private-sector workers.
"The Governor's proposed amendments would deny Emergency Paid Sick Time benefits to municipal employees – workers who are on the frontlines of the pandemic response and deserve the same protections as private-sector workers. That's unacceptable," the Raise Up coalition said after Baker returned that portion of the bill to the Legislature last week.
The coalition of labor, faith and community groups includes the MTA, which has been feuding with the Baker administration over vaccinations and the governor's plan to return most students to in-person learning this month.
Raise Up said the new state COVID-19 leave program would fill a gap that existed for many workers between the state's earned sick time law and the federal COVID-19 leave program that expired in December, but did not cover as many as 1.8 million workers in Massachusetts, including employees of large companies with more than 500 workers.
The paid family and medical leave law in Massachusetts that took effect on Jan. 1 also has a one-week waiting period to receive benefits, according to the coalition, exposing low-income workers who can't afford to miss a week of pay due to illness.
"Each additional day that goes by without Emergency Paid Sick Time legislation in place means that more workers will go to work even when they might be infectious, because they can't afford not to get paid. Many essential frontline workers need paid sick time so they can recover from the side effects of the COVID vaccine," the Raise Up coalition said.
House and Senate leaders are continuing to review other aspects of the governor's amendment, and have not set a date for the Legislature to vote again on the legislation, though given the schedule it's unlikely that would happen until at least next week.
Activists pressed for the emergency leave program's passage last session and appear to be on the verge of securing it more than a year into a pandemic that has produced more than 611,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts and more than 17,000 deaths.
Baker also proposed changes to more closely mirror the federal emergency leave program so that medium and small employers only have to follow one set of rules, and to ensure that the benefits paid for eligible workers are no less than their regular compensation, up to $850, or two-thirds of the regular rate of pay for family leave.
Baker said this change would raise the floor for many workers to access the emergency COVID-19 leave benefits, and wrote in his amendment letter that the program's aim of providing "necessary protections from the spread of COVID-19" for workers and their families is a goal he supports.
"The mandate aptly addresses needs — immunization, isolation, and quarantine — that were not contemplated when the state's Paid Family and Medical Leave program was designed," Baker wrote.
As originally passed, the Legislature proposed a $75 million fund to reimburse companies with more than 500 employees for leave taken by their workers, while smaller companies and government agencies can access tax credits from the federal government to cover the cost through the American Rescue Plan.
Baker proposed instead to convert the funding to a $40 per employee tax credit for all companies unable to access the federal credits, regardless of whether the employee uses the leave benefit. The governor said this would not add to the cost of the program, but would prevent it from abruptly ending when the $75 million runs out and ensure that benefits remain available through September.