Sarah Locke got excited when she heard that Connecticut lawmakers are trying to bring paid family medical leave to her home state, but then it gave her pause.
“My number one concern is that the bill would have an inclusive, expanded definition of family, which is more than just biological or legal ties,” Locke said, explaining that for people like her in the LGBTQ community, how one defines "family" is important.
Connecticut lawmakers hope to join other states that have created their own paid leave programs in the absence of a federal law. With new bill proposals and support from Gov. Ned Lamont, some legislators said they’re hopeful it will happen soon.
Under at least one version of a proposed bill, employees would contribute one half of one percent of their weekly earnings to a state trust fund for paid family leave.
Legislators said those continuous employee contributions will sustain the program for the long term. Employers would not have to contribute.
The fund would eventually pay out working wages for up to 12 weeks to employees who need medical leave for a birth, adoption, organ donation, personal health condition, specific military situation or to care for a sick family member.
Locke, 39, of New Haven, identifies as queer, and she is focused on how the state defines a family —especially as it relates to people in the LGBTQ community — for the purposes of this law.
She said some LGBTQ people may rely on chosen family for support, comfort, and care.
“We’re probably twice as likely to live alone or not be in a marriage the way a heterosexual person might, and certainly not have typical nuclear families,” she said. “And they’re probably already experiencing other forms of discrimination that are a little bit worse than other communities in the workforce, so to then sort of have this be something they can’t use or access or benefit from seems crazy to me.”
Locke serves on the steering committee for CT Equality, an advocacy organization for LGBTQ people in Connecticut, with Patrick Comerford, 37, of New Haven.
Comerford identifies as queer and said he’s lucky that he has family who would care for him, but he knows others in the LGBTQ community have faced rejection from their biological families.
“If there is no one in their life, if they are single, if they don’t have children, and there is no one that qualifies for paid family leave to be able to take time off and care for them, they’re going through this alone,” he said, “and anyone who has had an illness knows that to go through an illness by yourself, for many people, is unimaginable.”
Bill co-sponsor Sen. Julie Kushner, a Democrat from the Danbury area, says lawmakers kept that in mind when drafting at least one version of the bill.
That version does include care for “any other individual related by blood or whose close association with the employee is the equivalent of a family member.”
The bill was voted out of committee last week and will move on to the Senate for consideration, but there are no guarantees that the language will be kept in any final law.
“Family relationships are changing in our country and we want to be inclusive and we want to make sure that we’re taking care of all families,” she said. “Everyone should have the ability to take care of their loved ones, and everyone who is sick and needs care should have someone they can count on.”
Others besides the LGBTQ community have concerns about details in proposed paid family medical leave bills.
Tim Phelan, president of the Connecticut Retail Merchants Association, a statewide trade association that represents the interests of retailers, questioned if a paid leave program makes sense for small businesses.
He said those retailers may be hurt if an already small staff is reduced when an employee takes extended time off.
“If you hear the successful retail stories, they’ll always talk about how they treat their employees like family,” Phelan said, “so there’s not an insensitivity to a need that’s going on in the family, it’s more of a sensitivity to, how do I keep this operation going, how do I keep my store going so I can continue to employ lots of people for the long term, and that’s the concern we have.”
Eric Gjede, vice president of government affairs at Connecticut Business Industry Association, testified against the proposed bills at the public hearing this month. He said some business owners have already told him that a paid leave program would cost them more money.
But bill co-sponsor Rep. Gary Turco, D-Newington, said Connecticut has to keep pace.
“We need to be competitive with our surrounding states like Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island that already have moved forward with paid family medical leave programs.”
Turco says the state has to adopt its own program to be an attractive place for people to live and work.