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Sen. Friedman and Rep. Gordon Vote in Favor of Guaranteed COVID Unemployment Relief

The following is a joint release from the offices of State Sen. Cindy Friedman and State Rep. Ken Gordon

On Thursday May 20, 2021, Senator Cindy F. Friedman (D-Arlington), Representative Ken Gordon (D-Bedford), and their colleagues in the Massachusetts Legislature gave final legislative approval to a bill to guarantee COVID emergency paid leave to workers, as well as avoid drastic unemployment insurance rate increases paid by employers.

The bill was back before the Legislature this week after having been returned by the Governor with an amendment. Passage of the bill by the Legislature ensures that all Massachusetts employees, including frontline workers in hospitals and classrooms, will receive emergency leave for up to five paid days off for COVID-related concerns, including paid leave from work to attend a vaccine appointment.

“I am pleased we are able to provide much-needed relief to our businesses and working families, especially through long-overdue emergency paid sick leave benefits for all workers,” said Senator Friedman, Vice Chair of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means. “This legislation will protect public health and support an equitable economic recovery as we emerge from the pandemic.”

“I’m proud that the Legislature passed this critical bill to support our state’s workers and businesses,” said Representative Gordon. “As we begin to see improvements related to the COVID-19 pandemic, this legislation provides needed relief to workers and businesses in Massachusetts who still face challenges brought on by COVID-19.”

Massachusetts workers would be eligible for emergency paid leave should they be diagnosed with COVID-19, required to isolate, or need to care for a family member due to the virus. Building on efforts to increase vaccination rates in Massachusetts, employees would also be able to take emergency paid leave in order to receive a COVID vaccine, or if they have common vaccine side effects in the immediate days following the vaccine. This will ensure Massachusetts workers do not have to choose between a paycheck or access to the vaccine. Employees taking COVID emergency leave would maintain all benefits to which they are entitled, such as health insurance, vacation leave, and sick leave.

As in previous versions of this legislation, employees are eligible for up to five days of paid leave, at their regular rate of pay, capped at $850 per week—the same maximum weekly benefit provided for in the Massachusetts Paid Family Medical Leave (PFML) law. Employers covered by federal legislation providing for paid leave will have the cost of providing such leave paid for through the federal tax credit. For all other employers, the bill creates a $75 million COVID-19 Emergency Paid Sick Leave Fund to reimburse eligible employers for providing their employees with emergency paid sick leave. The state requirement for paid leave would extend until September 30, 2021, or until the fund is exhausted.

The legislation also answers calls to address unanticipated unemployment insurance (UI) rate spikes caused by increases to the solvency assessment. In cases where businesses are currently set to see dramatic increases in UI rates due to the pandemic, this bill would spread those costs over a 20-year period via a surcharge, effectively reducing rates in the near term and giving businesses additional relief as the pace of business in Massachusetts picks back up. This change builds on previous legislation passed this year by the Legislature to freeze the rate schedule for employers.

During the COVID-19 public health crisis, the surge of pandemic-related unemployment claims raised concerns among employers regarding disproportionate rises to their unemployment claims costs. To prevent such rises, the Legislature acted to insulate employers from employer-specific claims by temporarily diverting all COVID-related unemployment claims into a shared solvency account. This legislation would move all such COVID-related UI claims filed through August 1, 2021 into a new COVID claims account, further stabilizing the state’s UI system by undoing the solvency-related rate spikes.