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A state lawmaker is seeking to establish an insurance program for eligible Montanans taking family and medical leave from their jobs.

House Bill 208, carried by Rep. Moffie Funk, D-Helena, would provide for up to 12 weeks of leave benefits annually for workers with eligible health or family situations, such as the birth or adoption of a child or the illness of an elderly parent or family member.

The leaves would be paid from a state fund financed primarily with money from employers, employees and people who are self-employed.

The Montana Policy and Budget Center joined with the federal and state labor departments in 2014 to research the benefits of paid leave and the specifics of a policy for Montana. Heather O’Loughlin, the center’s co-director of research and development, told the House Business and Labor Committee on Monday that workers with access to paid leave are more likely to stay not only in the workforce but with their current employer.

Acting co-chair Emilie Ritter Saunders of the governor’s Equal Pay for Equal Work Task Force told the committee Montanans potentially lost $80 million in 2017 from taking unpaid parental leave.

Montana Women Vote, AARP Montana and the state Federation of Public Employees were among organizations that voiced their approval Monday.

“At some point, all of us are going to find ourselves in a situation in which we need leave,” said Executive Director Kelly Rosenleaf of Child Care Resources in Missoula, who told the committee about her experience taking paid leave to care for her mother after a fall. “For (a) medical reason, for ourselves or for somebody we love in our family.”

Rep. Laurie Bishop, D-Livingston, spoke of the bill’s benefits to Montana’s working women in a Monday press conference surrounded by House Democrats.

“Paid leave insurance would give working women a path to return to their jobs. It would empower women to increase their personal lifetime earnings and would also provide a significant boost to our state’s economy,” said Bishop, who talked about the difficulty of foregoing income as she took care of her father-in-law in his final years.

Opposition in Monday’s hearing came from the Montana and Helena Area chambers of commerce, who said the bill’s costs would overwhelm Montana employers over time.

“Despite the well intentions of this bill and despite the compelling testimony that you all heard, the chamber believes that this bill is hugely problematic,” said Cary Hegreberg, president and CEO of the Montana Chamber of Commerce.

Hegreberg called “a huge problem” the portion of the bill that states the Montana Department of Labor and Industry “may by rule determine whether a covered individual is subject to documenting” their reason for claiming leave benefits.

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“In other words, there’s not much enforcement in this bill for employees who would decide to take advantage of the provisions of this program,” Hegreberg said. “So how in the world would the Department of Labor determine if my grandson in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, needed my care for a period of many weeks?”

Funk said she found some of the reasoning behind opposition to the bill “cynical and insulting.”

“They have no solutions,” Funk said. She also asked that those in opposition to the bill help with finding a permanent solution.

In last week’s State of the Union address, President Donald Trump remarked that he was “proud to be the first president to include in my budget a plan for nationwide paid family leave.”

Trump’s 2018 budget proposal called for six weeks’ paid leave after a child’s birth or adoption.

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