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Massachusetts makes paid family leave more accessible, offering services in Spanish, Portuguese

A doctor's stethoscope.
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A doctor's stethoscope.

Para leer este artículo en español, haga clic aquí.

Whether it's an expectant parent, an ill relative, or a sudden injury, for many people in Massachusetts a change in circumstance can mean weeks or even months off of work.

The state passed a law in 2018 which provides paid family and medical leave (PFML) for serious injury or illness whether personal or a family member, as well as time for parental leave, but found that people whose primary language is not English were unaware of, or hesitant, to apply for the services. That's where the Office of Multilingual Services for the state's Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, stepped in.

In an effort to ensure that all eligible workers feel comfortable and secure asking for paid family and medical leave, Massachusetts launched an initiative last May to offer translation and interpretation services for people in more than 7 languages, with an emphasis on Spanish and Portuguese. More recently they have added Chinese and Haitian Creole.

"This new addition of languages to apply for benefits helps our community overcome barriers, especially for Massachusetts residents whose first language is not English or who prefer to receive this type of information in their native language," said Marisa de la Paz, director of the Office of Multilingual Services. "This initiative allows more workers to use the benefits that our state has to offer and will be able to give these communities the opportunity to access and understand that they can take care of their family members and that they can rest if they are faced with a serious illness or injury, or be prepared for the arrival of a new child."

While the legislation was passed nearly six years ago, benefits, which are funded through employer and employee contributions, became available to most Massachusetts workers in 2021. The program has since served 275,000 workers and paid out more than $2.3 billion in benefits, according to state records.

"It's in essence a wage replacement program that somewhat dovetails off of the federal family and medical leave act, which has certain requirements. Our law is much broader. We allow up to 26 weeks of leave," explained William Alpine, director of the state's Department of Family and Medical Leave.

Easy to navigate

While the state portal for applying for PFML services now has options in various languages, some people are still overwhelmed by filling paperwork out online. That is why De la Paz and her office wanted to make sure employees can speak with someone about the benefits over the phone. There are representatives who speak Spanish and Portuguese and the state also works with an interpretation service for many other languages.

"I know often people feel more comfortable speaking with a person, but it's important to note that we have made the website very easy to navigate," she said.

Employees can visitwww.mass.gov/pfml or call the contact center at 1-833-344-7365 for assistance.

"It was about time for a program that's so important and so crucial to our communities and the Healey, Driscoll administration is committed to creating more opportunities for diverse, multilingual communities to have access to these opportunities and benefits," De la Paz said.

"We are one of the few states in the country that offers paid family leave and I'm not sure how many of those offer these additional language services," she added.

De la Paz said through her work and advocacy of the program she found that even some of her friends were not aware that these benefits were available. She said she feels strongly that anyone who is eligible should not hesitate to seek these benefits when necessary.

"No one in this state of Massachusetts should suffer a loss of wages due to having to unexpectedly care for a loved one or recover from an injury. No one should miss out on this crucial and vital benefit if the worker meets the requirements, just because they could not understand how to request or apply for the benefits," she said.

No retaliation or repercussions

Another aspect of the program that De la Paz and Alpine want to make clear is that there are no repercussions for requesting these benefits and leaving work for an extended period.

"The law has a very strong provision for anti retaliation against an employee. In essence an employee is entitled to job protection when they take the leave and up to six months after they leave they're protected," Alpine said. "In other words an employer couldn't fire them or discipline them or suspended them or demote them because they use these benefits.

De la Paz said this provision offers peace of mind.

"We don't want people to worry that they are going to lose their job because they need to take care of themselves or their families," she said.

Caring for family abroad

Another important detail De la Paz notes is that for many people family leave also means leaving the state or the country to care for a relative.

"If a worker who lives in Massachusetts needs to travel to where their family is, whether that's Puerto Rico, Colombia, Bolivia, France, Brazil, whatever country it may be, the worker will continue to receive their benefits from the program, which is incredible to me," she said.

De la Paz pointed out that the most requested language they the office gets is Spanish, noting that in areas like Holyoke and Springfield, with large Latino populations, these benefits could be especially beneficial.

"We know the Latino population is large in places like Holyoke with many people having family members living in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and other Latin American countries," she said. " These benefits make it possible to care for yourself, but also your family wherever they live."

Increase in distribution of PFML benefits is expected

Alpine anticipates that with this renewed effort to ensure all eligible workers understand and have access to the benefits, there will be an increase in use.

"Between fiscal 2022 and 2023 we saw a 38% increase in the rise of benefit payments," he said. " I think we're expecting to see it grow a little."

State officials said the department also anticipates the program’s usage to continue to increase due to the recentpassage of legislation allowing employees to supplement their PFML benefit up to their average weekly wage through the use of their vacation or sick time; future enhancements to the claimant portal allowing for more self-service options such as extending and amending claims without the need to call those changes into a contact center and more awareness campaigns across the state.

Elizabeth Román edits daily news stories at NEPM as managing editor. She is working to expand the diversity of sources in our news coverage and is also exploring ways to create more Spanish-language news content.
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