The Recorder – Beacon Hill Roll Name: Could 17 to Could 21, 2021

Beacon Hill Roll Call records local representatives’ and senators’ votes on roll calls from the week of May 17 to May 21.

$400 million for new Holyoke Soldiers’ Home (H 3770)

The House, 160 to 0, and the Senate, 40 to 0, approved and sent to Gov. Charlie Baker a bill authorizing $400 million to fund the construction of a new Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke. (Gov. Baker then signed the bill on May 25.) The push to construct the new home follows the deaths of 77 veteran residents last year as a result of a COVID-19 outbreak at the current facility. A House-Senate conference committee hammered out this compromise version after the House and Senate approved different versions of the measure.

The bill also provides $200 million to increase geographic equity and accessibility of long-term care services for Massachusetts veterans with a focus on areas that are not primarily served by the soldiers’ homes in Chelsea or Holyoke.

“Rebuilding the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke and increasing access to services for our veterans is necessary and long overdue, especially after tragically losing many residents of the Soldiers’ Home to a COVID-19 outbreak last year,” said Sen. Cindy Friedman, D-Arlington, who served as the lead Senate negotiator of the conference committee. “This funding will ensure that the commonwealth’s veterans are met with the services that they deserve and that address their unique and changing needs.”

“Our veterans throughout the commonwealth deserve the very best in care and treatment as they age,” said Sen. Paul Feeney, D-Foxborough, another member of the conference committee. The bill that we enacted today will ensure that their needs are met for generations to come in a safe, comfortable and welcoming Soldiers’ Home. Additionally, it is critical that this vital taxpayer-funded facility be built efficiently by a local, well-trained, safe and diverse workforce that provides a career pipeline for skilled craftspeople in Western Massachusetts. The bipartisan and collaborative bond authorization bill we sent to the governor is reflective of our values and consistent with our focus on providing equitable and top-notch care to every veteran in the commonwealth.”

“As the senator for the city of Holyoke and the Soldiers’ Home, I know what this new home means to so many in our community,” said Sen. John Velis, D-Westfield, Senate chair of the Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs. “This has truly been a long and emotional process that started well before this legislation was first filed. From the very start, families and veterans gave me a very clear message: ‘Get this done.’ We could not let them down and I am proud to say that we have not let them down. … The funding authorized in this bill will ensure that the future residents of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home and veterans across our commonwealth receive the care with honor and dignity that they have earned in service to our nation. Today’s vote brings us one step closer toward fulfilling that mission.”

A “Yes” vote is for the bill.

Rep. Natalie Blais — Yes

Rep. Paul Mark — Yes

Rep. Susannah Whipps — Yes

Sen. Joanne Comerford — Yes

Sen. Anne Gobi — Yes

Sen. Adam Hinds — Yes

COVID-19 emergency sick leave and unemployment insurance changes (H 3771)

The House, 157 to 0, and the Senate, 40 to 0, approved and sent to Gov. Baker a bill that would provide qualified workers with up to five days of paid leave for COVID-19-related emergencies including workers who are sick with the virus, under a quarantine order, recovering from receiving a vaccine or caring for a family member ill with the virus.

The measure is also designed to relieve employers this spring from expensive unexpected unemployment system costs. Many businesses were shocked when they saw their first-quarter unemployment contribution bills and found the solvency assessment rate had jumped from 0.58 percent in 2020 to 9.23 percent in 2021, raising costs in many cases by hundreds or thousands of dollars.

Under the proposal, the state would shift all COVID-19-related unemployment claims from the solvency fund into a new COVID-19 claims fund and the solvency fund would revert to its original function. Employers, who fund the state’s jobless aid system, will still be on the hook in the long term, and a COVID-19-related assessment on businesses will kick into effect for 2021 and 2022.

“Massachusetts workers and businesses share the same goal of restoring jobs lost during the COVID pandemic and getting back to work,” said Steve Tolman, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO. “By spreading this year’s solvency assessment over the next two decades using already authorized borrowing, the House took the necessary step at this time to enable that continued economic recovery. Moving forward, it is critical that we take a hard look at the way we fund our unemployment insurance system to ensure that costs are fairly spread out across businesses; that we build substantial reserves during good economic times in order to weather the bad without relying on costly borrowing; and that workers can continue to count on UI benefits as an economic lifeline to provide for their families and boost the Massachusetts economy.”

“The unemployment benefits crisis was directly caused by Gov. Baker’s shutdown of the state’s economy and the Legislature’s failure to act,” said Chip Ford, executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. “The federal government provided relief with its American Rescue Plan Act, but the House chose not to use those funds to mitigate the burden the state imposed on employers. It is unconscionable for the state to further abuse devastated businesses when federal funds have been made available to alleviate that pain.”

“This proposal is a good step to help provide employers immediate unemployment insurance tax relief, but it is not a long-term solution,” said National Federation of Independent Business’ (NFIB) Massachusetts State Director Christopher Carlozzi. “The state forced businesses to close their doors and rollback operations resulting in widespread layoffs. Because of this, employers alone should not be left to shoulder the entire UI tax burden, and policymakers must use some of the billions of dollars in federal aid to help replenish the UI trust fund like so many other states have done.”

“This legislation is an important stopgap step to prevent up to 1,600 percent immediate tax increases for Massachusetts employers,” said Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts. “It will amortize the multi-billion-dollar COVID-related claims over 20 years, spreading out, but not eliminating the pain. Still, there needs to be a shared responsibility with government to cover some of the UI Trust Fund debt. The orders, restrictions, messaging, emergency benefits and fraudulent claims were related to government actions, not that of employers.”

A “Yes” vote is for the bill.

Rep. Natalie Blais — Yes

Rep. Paul Mark — Yes

Rep. Susannah Whipps — Present

Sen. Joanne Comerford — Yes

Sen. Anne Gobi — Yes

Sen. Adam Hinds — Yes

Exclude municipal workers (H 3771)

The House, 0 to 158, and the Senate on a voice vote without a roll call, rejected Gov. Baker’s amendment that would exclude municipal employees from the emergency COVID-19 paid leave program.

The Baker administration has defended the exclusion of municipal workers, arguing that they already have strong leave protections in place and that many municipalities can access federal funds to implement their own leave programs that could align with state and federal leave guarantees.

Rep. Josh Cutler, D-Pembroke, House chair of the Committee on Labor and Workforce Development disagreed with Gov. Baker.

“As the speaker has made clear, the House stands firm in supporting COVID emergency paid leave for all Massachusetts workers,” Cutler said. “That includes our municipal employees, the teachers, police officers, firefighters, health agents, janitors, veterans’ agents and many others who have been essential to our state’s COVID-19 response. Further, our actions today to address unemployment solvency account rates will help stem rising costs for employers and small businesses.”

House GOP Minority Leader Brad Jones, R-North Reading, also disagreed with Gov. Baker, a fellow Republican.

“Having access to emergency paid sick leave is essential to workers who are recovering from the coronavirus, caring for a family member or trying to schedule their vaccination,” Jones said. “Municipal employees — including essential frontline workers like police and firefighters — have also faced numerous challenges created by the COVID-19 global pandemic, and the House’s vote will ensure that they are also entitled to the same paid sick leave benefits as other non-municipal workers.”

A “No” vote is against the amendment and favors including municipal employees.

Rep. Natalie Blais — No

Rep. Paul Mark — No

Rep. Susannah Whipps — Present

Also up on Beacon Hill Unemployed claimants must look for work

Gov. Baker announced that, effective June 15, the work search requirements will be reinstated for all regular Unemployment Insurance (UI) claimants. Massachusetts temporarily suspended these requirements in March 2020 when the pandemic began.

Under the reinstated regulations, claimants must attest each week that they are making at least three work-search activities and provide proof of that activity to the Department of Unemployment Assistance, if requested, in order to maintain eligibility for UI benefits. Examples of valid work-search activities include completing a job application in person or online with employers who reasonably may be expected to have an opening for suitable work; registering for work and reemployment services with a local MassHire Career Center; and using other job search activities, such as reviewing job listings on the internet, newspapers or professional journals, contacting professional associations and networking with colleagues or friends.

“This is very good news for everyone,” said Paul Craney executive director of the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance. “Businesses, workers and customers all need to get back to normal and this is a good first step toward that. Businesses are having a hard time hiring workers because the unemployment benefits are so generous. Customers cannot enjoy their favorite businesses because these businesses are dealing with a shortage of workers.”

“I am completely opposed to Gov. Baker’s move to reinstate work search requirements for UI claimants starting June 15th,” said Rep. Mike Connolly, D-Cambridge. “This adds an additional layer of complexity to a UI system that has greatly struggled to deliver benefits in a timely fashion for many residents. Moreover, we’ve just experienced one of the biggest disruptions to the labor market in history, so imposing these requirements right now will tend to perpetuate systemic racism and other inequities by pushing some of our most vulnerable residents into accepting underpaid work or work in unsafe conditions.”

Study school days start times (H 600)

A measure that would create an educational task force to review the effect of school day start times for middle school and high school students was the subject of a hearing before the Education Committee.

“Some school districts have moved their start times later in the day, but many districts have opted to keep earlier start times,” said sponsor Rep. Carmine Gentile, D-Sudbury. “There is already a substantial body of evidence to suggest that students will get better sleep, perform better and drive more safely with later start times.

A task force would explore the impact of later start times on commonwealth schools and draft key recommendations for school districts and public officials.”

Fake service animals (H 1565)

Sponsored by Rep. Kim Ferguson, R-Holden, this bill heard by the Judiciary Committee would make it a crime for anyone to misrepresent that a dog or other animal is a service animal.

First-time offenders would be required to perform 30 hours of community service for an organization that serves individuals with disabilities and/or up to a $500 fine. Subsequent offenses would be punishable by 60 hours of community service and/or up to a $1,000 fine.

Ferguson said the bill seeks to protect service dogs and their handlers from people who are abusing the rights afforded to them under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

“This has become an increasing problem throughout the country, so much so that 27 other states have had to pass laws such as this,” Ferguson said. The law will reinforce the ADA and also provide guidance to business owners and the public, as well as training to law enforcement regarding what can and cannot be done if someone is in violation of the law.

“I think we can agree that we have seen many pets in stores, restaurants, places of business who are pets — riding in shopping carts, dressed up in clothing or being a nuisance simply because they are pets — not highly trained service dogs,” Ferguson continued. “At times, it is also impacting members of the general public who want to be in a place of business — a restaurant, etc. — without someone’s pet interfering unnecessarily — eating off plates, sniffing at their food, barking or snarling.”

Free college education (S 829)

The Higher Education Committee held a hearing on legislation that would guarantee free public higher education as a right for all students. The measure creates a grant program to cover tuition and mandatory fees for Massachusetts residents attending a public college or university in Massachusetts or certificate, vocational or training program at a public institution. For students who meet certain low-income eligibility, the legislation gives additional aid in grants to cover the additional costs of attending the school including room and board, books and supplies, transportation and personal expenses.

“Higher education is vital to our state’s economy and success,” said co-sponsor Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton. “We cannot treat it like a luxury. We cannot let financial obstacles hinder the growth of our youth and the flourishing of our state. An act to guarantee debt-free public higher education is the solution.”

“I filed this legislation because I believe public higher education should be free and accessible like it was in the late 1980s when I was born,” said co-sponsor Rep. Natalie Higgins, D-Leominster. “Unfortunately, inaction to keep up with public higher education funding has led to widespread cuts — 32 percent per student since 2001, plus a 32 percent reduction in scholarship aid. This is an equity issue. While 50 percent of Massachusetts residents have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, less than 30 percent of my community of Leominster has, and across Gateway Cities it can be less than 25 percent.”

Social emotional learning (H 543)

Rep. Ruth Balser, D-Newton, sponsored this bill heard by the Education Committee that would require, as a provision of initial certification and recertification, that all educators and administrators must have training in “strategies to develop students’ social-emotional learning competencies, including self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making.”

Supporters said that mounting research evidence shows that high-quality social and emotional learning practices in schools help children to develop the social, emotional and academic skills they need to thrive. They noted that many students come to school having experienced trauma that impacts their relationships, and that school officials report that the numbers of students with anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation is increasing at an alarming level.

“It is important to recognize that children’s learning is, in part, dependent on their emotional state,” Balser said. “This bill requires teachers and administrators to receive training in social-emotional learning strategies.”