Almost half of Hawaii households are a family emergency away from slipping into poverty.

And though most Hawaii workers are eligible for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave under federal law, it’s questionable how many employees could survive that long without a paycheck.

A new study could provide lawmakers with a framework for how they could implement a paid family leave program in Hawaii, making it the ninth state with such a program.

The new report looks at programs in some of those other states, including California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Washington and the District of Columbia.

A new report to the Legislature details how a paid family leave program might work in Hawaii.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The 181-page report, by Spring Consulting Group of Boston, cost the state $265,000. It provides numerous details on funding models and insurance policies and gives lawmakers an idea of what a paid family leave program in Hawaii could look like. 

The report was ordered by lawmakers after a proposal to create a paid family leave system fell short in the Legislature. But even with the information in the new report, lawmakers still need to grapple with a multitude of questions this session regarding how a paid family leave program could actually work.

Could it be an extension of Hawaii’s temporary disability insurance program? What will premiums cost? For workers who need to stay home to care for a family member, who can they care for? And what ailments would qualify?

House Speaker Scott Saiki says those are just some of the questions to tackle. For anything to pass this session, the Legislature would need a breakdown of costs, he said.

“Family leave is an important issue for the Legislature, and that’s why we spent money on it,” Saiki said regarding the new report. “We know that workers need some relief.”

Proposals to create a system were supported by health advocates, among others. Hawaii’s business sector opposed the idea.

The Need For A Paid Leave Program

In Hawaii, 37% of households are teetering on the edge of poverty while another 11% fall below federal poverty standards, according to a report by Aloha United Way.

“It’s half our community,” said Deborah Zysman, executive director of the Hawaii Children’s Action Network. “The reality in Hawaii is people are barely making it.”

And even if they are able to survive several months with no pay, researchers at the University of Hawaii have found that a third of workers are not eligible for paid time off because they work for companies with fewer than 50 employees.

The new report builds on findings in a similar 2017 report funded by the U.S. Department of Labor.

The estimated annual cost to cover workers who take time off to care for family members or newborn children varies widely from state to state. The report looks at the potential cost to Hawaii depending on which state Hawaii follows.

Following Rhode Island’s program, for instance, could cost $15 million a year because that state allows up to four weeks of paid time off. Going along with Washington state’s program, which allows up to 16 weeks paid time off, would cost $58 million a year in Hawaii, the report says.

No matter the model Hawaii follows or how much it costs, the report estimates program participants would pay less than 1% from each paycheck to cover their time off.

“It’s meant to be insurance. You pay a small amount in each paycheck, tapping into it just a few times in our life,” Zysman said.

The report estimates that more than 400,000 Hawaii workers could be eligible. 

Other states that implemented paid family leave programs have seen a rise in the number of fathers taking time off to be with their newborn children.

One of the primary choices legislators would have is deciding if Hawaii should run the program or have employers or a third party manage it.

Either way, the report recommends that the state establish strong regulations to manage the system, presumably through the state Department of Industrial Relations. That would also come with its costs.

The report estimates that a state-run program would require $2.2 million annually to maintain, while a model in which the state simply regulates the program would cost $930,000 annually.

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