On Tuesday afternoon, the Connecticut Department of Public Health sent out an email marked “high” importance, encouraging organizations to testify before the Labor Committee on Thursday in support of a paid family medical leave bill.
The email sent from DPH raises concerns regarding the agency’s use of state time and resources in pushing for legislation that many business leaders and organizations say will ultimately hurt their ability to hire employees.
The email states that paid FMLA is a priority of the Connecticut State Health Improvement Plan and was sent to members of the agency’s Health Improvement Coalition, a group of 500 health organizations, municipalities, and non-profits.
“This important issue is included in our 2018 SHIP Policy Agenda to allow Connecticut workers to meet their health and family needs without jeopardizing their economic stability,” the email says. “It is important for the public health perspective to be heard and to let the committee know that this issue has been determined to be a SHIP priority by coalition partners.”
A second email was sent the following morning with instructions on how to submit written testimony for the public hearing.
Maura Downes, spokeswoman for DPH, says the emails were sent to keep Connecticut Health Improvement Coalition members informed of legislation relevant to SHIP.
"DPH serves as the coordinating entity for the 500 member Connecticut Health Improvement Coalition, and in our role as coordinators we have been asked to keep coalition members informed of bill status and legislative activity surrounding bills that the Coalition has included in the State Health Improvement Plan (SHIP) policy agenda," Downes said.
Downes said there are DPH staff members included on the email list, including section chiefs, managers and supervisors who are kept apprised of communications from the agency to outside partners.
Reached for comment, Nancy Nicolescu of the State Ethics Committee said the state’s code of ethics is “largely silent” when it comes to agency involvement in pressing for legislation.
Agency commissioners routinely testify at public hearings regarding issues or legislation which falls under their purview, but the DPH emails come at a time when business leaders believe the state is actively working against their interests.
The Connecticut Business and Industry Association’s annual survey showed that 68 percent of business owners say the cost of state mandates is hurting their ability to grow.
The bill going before the Labor and Public Employee Committee for a public hearing on Thursday would establish a Family Medical Leave fund administered by the state and funded by a .5 percent payroll tax.
The law would require any employer with two or more employees to allow an employee twelve weeks of FMLA time per year while receiving their full pay up to $1,000 per week and benefits.
The same bill passed out of the Labor Committee last year, but did not receive a vote in the legislature.
Critics in the past have pointed out the FMLA fund would quickly become insolvent due to the high payout and low contribution rate from employees.
The non-partisan Office of Fiscal Analysis estimated the fund would cost $5.9 million to start and $16.9 million per year to administer. The OFA also estimates the state would likely see 53,500 claims per year, or 3.2 percent of the state’s workforce.
The 2017 legislation was opposed by a number of business and industry organizations, including the MetroHartford Alliance, the National Federation of Independent Businesses and the Connecticut Food Association.
Eric Gjede of CBIA testified the bill would hurt Connecticut’s ability to compete economically with other states and place an unsustainable burden on small businesses.
“For most small businesses, it is financially impossible to do what this bill asks of them,” Gjede wrote in his testimony.
Connecticut continues to struggle economically since the 2008 recession and to date has only recovered 78 percent of the jobs lost ten years ago, while neighboring states and the nation have all fully recovered.
According to the bills going before the Labor Committee, employees would start paying into the fund in 2020, but would not be eligible for the benefits until 2021.
State such as New York have offered state sponsored paid FMLA, although the length of leave time is limited to 8 weeks and the pay is capped at half the state’s average weekly pay. New York’s leave time and payout will increase by 2021, but the payout will remain less than the proposed bill in Connecticut.
The Committee will also hear public comment regarding mandatory sexual harassment training for employees, a $15 minimum wage and requiring companies to disclose the salary of previous employees. The proposals, including the FMLA bill, are all part of Gov. Dannel Malloy's "fairness" agenda outlined in his 2018 state of the state speech.