Employment Law Ballot Initiatives May Go To Massachusetts Voters

Massachusetts voters may soon get another chance to significantly impact employment relationships in Massachusetts through the ballot box, just as they did in 2015 with their approval of the Earned Sick Time law.  This past week, the Attorney General of Massachusetts certified ballot initiatives concerning minimum wage, paid family and medical leave, and nurse staffing levels, as meeting constitutional requirements for the ballot initiative process. The Attorney General’s certification clears the way for sponsors of the initiatives to proceed to the next step in the process in having the proposed laws placed on the ballot in November 2018.

Proponents of the proposed laws must now gather and file 64,750 signatures of registered voters by December 6, 2017 for each initiative. Once the signatures are filed, the proposals will be sent to the Legislature to enact by May 2, 2018.  If the Legislature does not enact the proposals, the proponents must gather an additional 10,792 signatures by July 2018 in order to have them placed on the November 2018 ballot.

The following is a brief summary of each of the certified proposals:

Minimum Wage Increase to $15

Raise Up Massachusetts, a group that describes itself as, “a grassroots coalition of community organizations, religious groups, and labor unions committed to building an economy that works for all of us,” filed the ballot question that would require raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2022.  Under the proposal, the current $11.00 per hour minimum wage would be raised to $12.00 in 2019; $13.00 in 2020; $14.00 in 2021; and $15.00 in 2022.  The proposed law would also raise the minimum cash wage that must be paid to tipped employees, which is $3.75 per hour as of January 1, 2017, to $5.05 in 2019; $6.35 in 2020; $7.64 in 2021; and $9.00 in 2022.

Paid Family and Medical Leave

Raise Up Massachusetts is also the sponsor of the ballot question that would create a statewide paid family and medical leave insurance program.  Under the proposal, covered workers could take family leave to care for a child after the child’s birth, adoption, or placement in foster care; to care for a seriously ill family member; or to address needs arising from a family member’s active duty military service.  Workers could also take paid medical leave to address their own medical conditions.

Covered workers taking family or medical leave would receive 90% of their average weekly earnings, up to $1,000 per week, while on leave.  Beginning January 1, 2021, the weekly cap on benefits could be adjusted annually based on the Consumer Price Index published by the United States Department of Labor for the Boston metropolitan area.

The proposal would allow covered workers to take up to 16 weeks of paid family leave or 26 weeks of paid medical leave.  A covered worker could not take more than a total of 26 weeks of both types of leave in one year.  Paid leave could also be taken intermittently and would run concurrently with leave taken under the state Parental Leave Act or the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.

In order to pay for the leave benefits, the proposed law would create a trust fund into which employers would pay 0.63% of each employee’s annual wages, up to half of which could be deducted from employee wages.  Beginning October 1, 2021, the contribution rate would be reviewed and adjusted annually to ensure funding of at least 140% of the amounts paid out during the previous year.

The proposed law would cover both private and public employees, except that municipal employees would be covered only if the proposed law were accepted by vote of the city or town.

Nurse Staffing Levels

The Massachusetts Nurses Association sponsored the ballot initiative titled, “Petition for a Law Relative to Patient Safety and Hospital Transparency.”  The proposed law would limit how many patients could be assigned to each registered nurse in Massachusetts hospitals and other health care facilities based upon the schedule set forth in the law. For example, under the law in emergency departments, there could only be one critical or intensive care patient per nurse (or 2 if the nurse has assessed each patient’s condition as stable); 2 urgent non-stable patients per nurse; 3 urgent stable patients per nurse; or 5 non-urgent stable patients per nurse.  The proposal further dictates nurse-patient ratios for other departments within the healthcare facility.

If each of the above proposed laws were approved by the Legislature or at the ballot box, they would have a significant impact on Massachusetts employers.  As such, employers would be well advised to monitor the proposed laws progress through the ballot initiative process.

About Michael Murphy

Mike is a member of the firm's Labor, Employment and Employee Benefits Group. He appears on behalf of employers in litigation before federal and state courts, agencies, and in arbitrations, defending against a variety of claims concerning discrimination, harassment, retaliation, wrongful termination, misclassification, breaches of employment agreements, federal and state wage and hour laws, and the National Labor Relations Act. He also regularly advises employers on day-to-day labor and employment issues and is experienced in drafting employment agreements, severance agreements, handbooks, information security policies, and other workplace policies.
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