Why is Beacon Hill embracing sick bank bills?

Lawmakers are avoiding their real responsibilities

A RECENT Commonwealth opinion piece by former state senator Ben Downing forcefully criticized “the glacial pace of change on Beacon Hill.” For the past three decades, Downing argued, our political leaders have habitually failed to respond to major challenges with the necessary urgency, contenting themselves instead with “preserving political power rather than using it for the greater good.” This lack of resolve, which has deepened racial and economic divides in the state, “is bad enough in non-pandemic conditions, but it threatens lives under our current reality.”

Exhibit A in Downing’s catalog of damaging governmental inertia is its failure, in this era of Covid-19, to pass emergency sick time benefits for the 1.5 million workers in the state (mostly persons of color) now without them. Those workers must still choose between their jobs and their health – and their choices may implicate the public health as well.

Current Massachusetts law does allow workers to earn up to five sick days per year, one hour for every 30 hours worked, but that modest benefit is no match for the magnitude of this pandemic. And to return to Downing’s point, credit for getting that law on the books goes not to the Legislature, but to advocates who tired of seeing it languish in several legislative sessions prior and decided to put the question on the ballot in 2014 (credit also goes to the voters who approved it by a 57 percent to 39 percent margin).

Lawmakers did agree in 2016 to a broader family and medical leave program — again under the threat of a ballot question — but those protections won’t be available until January.

Perhaps not by coincidence, during the same period that the Legislature has largely been punting the issue of paid sick time to the ballot process, lawmakers have become increasingly keen on passing bills creating a sick leave bank for the benefit specifically-named state employees (usually constituents of the sponsoring lawmaker) into which that employee’s co-workers can deposit one or more of their sick, vacation, or personal days.

Sick banks for public employees aren’t unusual. All of our New England neighbors have established arrangements for government workers to donate sick leave time to each other. An agency within the state with responsibility for human resources operates the system, and it requires no ongoing lawmaker involvement.

Massachusetts has had one of these, too, since 1995. It’s housed in the Executive Office for Administration and Finance and works like an insurance policy, allowing executive branch employees who donate to the bank to draw on it if the need arises.

Over the years, sick bank bills have come to be a bipartisan and bicameral staple of the Legislature’s routine — the 1997-1998 Legislature passed three sick bank bills, the 2007-08 Legislature passed 74, and the 2017-28 Legislature passed 117, a number that represents nearly one in five of the laws it enacted. So far this session even that pace is being exceeded

To respond in this individualized way to an urgent need is understandable (especially for lawmakers, who are ever on the lookout for “hero opportunities,” in the words of lobbyist Judy Meredith). But it’s the job of the Legislature to treat all constituents equally, and this practice fails even to treat all state employees equally. Which state employees know that this possibility exists? Which legislators are willing to file these bills and which are not? More sick leave banks are filed than are enacted, so how are the winners chosen and at the cost of what amount of political capital that might be spent on other issues?

Session after session, it seems, our Legislature spends more of its time running a lottery in which the winners receive GoFundMe pages. It’s avoiding its real responsibilities in the manner of a writer who rearranges the boxes in the garage or the spices in the spice rack rather than finishing that essay. Instead of forging consensus on difficult but pressing issues, lawmakers are simply busying themselves with smaller and happier tasks while waiting to see if consensus arrives — or not, as the case may be.

Margaret Monsell, a former assistant attorney general and former general counsel to the state Senate Committee on Ways and Means, is an attorney practicing in the Boston area.