Following Labor Department pushback, paid family leave proposal dies

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Published: Mar. 16, 2023 at 5:02 PM HST|Updated: Mar. 16, 2023 at 6:01 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Efforts to establish a family leave system in Hawaii similar to unemployment insurance have died again at the state Capitol.

The issue was deferred for the year just as the the Hawaii Working Families Coalition organized a rally for working families.

They are seeking tax relief, sick days and paid family leave to free workers to be caregivers.

State Rep. Jeanne Kapela, a Democrat representing rural Hawaii Island, said the issue is urgent.

“Because we are not supporting them enough in this state,” Kapela said, “It’s horrifying, it’s sad and it’s tragic.”

Christen Sulli told her story of depression after childbirth to explain the bind families can find themselves in.

“One weekday mornings, while nursing our newborn, I told my husband I did not think i was going to live to the end of the day,” She said.

“His response still chills me to the bone: ‘I have to go to work.’”

Kapela said many families find themselves in debt after losing income while caregiving.

“No family should have to suffer or open a GoFundMe account on social media and beg for funding because they cannot afford to live in this state because they’ve had a child,” Kapela told the gathered workers and advocates.

Supporters envision a program similar to unemployment insurance that would provide 16 weeks of paid leave from a tax on both employers and workers. They say that tax will be no more than a dollar a week.

But Senate Bill 360, which began as an proposal to implement a family leave program, was rewritten in the state Senate to require only that the Labor Department work on a study. That decision followed testimony by the state Labor director that as many as 100 additional staff would be needed and the department was not ready.

Paid family leave was a prominent plank of Gov. Josh Green’s campaign.

In the House Labor Committee, Green’s appointee as Labor Director, Jade Butay, said even the study would be a strain on the department. “We do not have the capacity to undertake this effort on its own,” Butay said.

But supporters of family leave in the House dispute that many staff would be needed and said Butay didn’t seem to understand how the program works in other states.

“You’d imagine that as a doctor, Gov. Green would be supportive of this but unfortunately his departments are not,” Kapela said.

Rather than pass a bill for a study that could take one or two years to complete, the House Labor Committee deferred it, killing it for the year.

But Committee Chair Scott Matayoshi promised to fast-track an implementation plan for next session.

“I think we need concrete implementation steps and that’s what I intend to do this summer during the interim,” he said.

Advocates now have more reason to focus on tax credits, including a per child credit, food credit and earned income relief, which the governor said could be worth a couple thousand dollars a year to many families.