Baker sounds open to COVID leave law extension

Boston Statehouse

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON (01/27/2021) – Gov. Charlie Baker unveiled his $45.6 billion fiscal 2022 budget proposal at a press conference in the Massachusetts State House and also spoke to reporters about availability and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine. (Sam Doran/State House News Service)

BOSTON (SHNS) – The Legislature sent Gov. Charlie Baker a bill Monday extending the state’s COVID-19 emergency paid leave program until April 1.

The program was launched early this summer to offer workers up to a week off to quarantine, recover from the illness, get vaccinated, or help a sick family member.

The $75 million program is scheduled to expire this week and the bill now before Baker extends a law that was heralded as benefit to help workers and their families to recover from the virus and prevent it from spreading further. Senate President Karen Spilka noted the state is still in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and people need time off to get their vaccinations and boosters.

“We want to encourage people to be doing this, getting their own vaccinations, their own boosters, and getting them for their children,” Spilka said during a Monday afternoon press conference. “So we feel that they should be allowed to have some paid emergency time off or if they have a reaction to it, they may need a little time off.”

Finalized in May, the law authorizing the new program grants all employees access to emergency leave for up to five paid days off for COVID-related concerns, including paid leave from work to attend a vaccine appointment.

Asked what he thought of extending the program at a State House press conference on Monday, Baker said he signed the legislation once before in May and shares “the optimism that the Senate president spoke to that there are still 10,000 people a day getting shots” in the state.

“There’s a lot of traffic and a lot of activity out there and I certainly don’t want concerns about getting a booster or getting vaccinated to be something that gets in the way of somebody’s willingness to do so,” Baker said.

Legislators updated the law to require the state to spend up to $500,000 on a public information campaign to educate and promote awareness about the program’s availability. The bill directs the Executive Office for Administration and Finance to target the campaign at employers and employees.

Spilka also said just over $2 million had been used from the $75 million pool, lawmakers wanted to reallocate a portion of money for a public awareness campaign.

“We wanted to do some sort of public awareness campaign so we took $500,000 for that as well so that people are aware that this benefit is available for employees and for employers,” Spilka said. “This is not coming out of the pocket of employers.”

When the program was authorized, Spilka’s office said it would help workers access paid emergency leave “should they be diagnosed with COVID-19, required to isolate, or need to care for a family member due to the virus.”

Baker had originally attempted to exclude municipal employees from the program, saying they were covered by generous leave policies. But the governor’s attempts at amending the original proposal ran into resistance from the Legislature, who rejected his amendments.

The governor ultimately signed the bill without vetoing any sections.

Though the state had experienced a relative stagnation of COVID-19 cases during the early summer months, the resurgence of COVID-19 fueled by the Delta variant has again prompted a rise in confirmed cases and growing concern among health officials.

The seven-day average for new confirmed cases of COVID-19 most recently peaked at 1,891 in mid-September and the seven-day weighted average percent positivity rate has not dropped below 2 percent since late-July, according to data from the Department of Public Health.

The Legislature also included a new provision in the bill that speaks specifically to helping a family member getting a vaccine such as a parent taking their child to get a shot. Under the updated language, employees can take paid leave to help a family member obtain a COVID-19 vaccine or care for them as they recover from an injury, disability, illness, or condition related to a vaccine.

The same day Baker instituted a vaccine mandate for executive branch workers in mid-August, Senate President Karen Spilka and House Speaker Ronald Mariano announced they would pursue an extension of the emergency COVID paid leave program.

“In order for the Governor’s vaccine mandate to be successful, the Legislature will work to extend emergency paid COVID leave in the Commonwealth past the September 30, 2021 deadline and ensure that all workers have the opportunity to take time from work to receive the vaccine if and when they can,” the legislative leaders said in a statement at the time.

The House on Monday afternoon also named members to the House COVID-19 Working Group that was charged under an order adopted last week with navigating the House through its new vaccine mandate and planned reopening of the State House, a goal that currently lacks concrete timelines.

The representatives named to the working group are Speaker Pro Tempore Kate Hogan, William Driscoll, Joseph McGonagle, Dan Cahill, Bud Williams, Jon Santiago, Natalie Blais, and Kim Ferguson. The speaker’s office said Hogan would chair the group.

Those are the same representatives who served on the House Reopening Working Group, which released a report last Monday recommending a vaccine mandate to work in-person at the State House and a phased reopening of the building.

The House COVID-19 Working group received a fairly broad mandate to oversee policies in the branch related to the virus, including establishing a deadline to show proof of vaccination and creating specific dates for reopening the building.

“All members, officers and employees physically working at the State House shall undertake any additional mitigation measures as ordered by the House Working Group including, without limitation, wearing face masks, maintaining physical or social distancing or submitting to coronavirus testing,” the order said.

During a House session last Thursday Republicans pushed back against the order, saying it was quickly put together and lacked specificity. House Democrats said the order, vaccination mandate, and working group would help promote public health and protect immunocompromised members and staff.

“What we have before us here is a vague document with no clear parameters,” Ferguson, a Holden Republican, said during the session. “We have a document that gives the eight members of the working group the ultimate final say of all future policy on COVID-19 in the House and that concerns me.”

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