Legislature Returns COVID-19 Emergency Paid Sick Leave to Governor’s Desk

BOSTON – On Thursday, May 20, 2021, Senator Cindy F. Friedman (D-Arlington), Representative Rich Haggerty (D-Woburn), Representative Michelle Ciccolo (D-Lexington), 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. “It is vital that we protect public health and support an equitable economic recovery as we emerge from the pandemic.”

“Small businesses need our support as we focus on economic recovery and because of that I was very proud to support legislation that drastically reduces the spike in unemployment insurance rates for employers,” said Representative Haggerty. “This effort stabilizes UI rates, bolsters the long term solvency of our UI fund, and provides critical emergency paid sick leave for those who need it most.”

“After such a difficult year, I am pleased that the Legislature has provided relief our small businesses and workers, and I look forward to continuing to make sure that those most affected by the pandemic are not left behind,” said Representative Ciccolo.

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.

The bill now returns to the Governor’s desk.