Filipe Zamborlini and his wife were thrilled about becoming parents, but they weren’t sure exactly how they’d manage child care for their soon-to-arrive daughter.
“My wife and I had some really hard conversations, talking about who would quit their jobs to be able to take care of her,” Zamborlini said.
Both of them work for homeless shelters in the Boston area and have college debt. So, Zamborlini knew quitting his job to be a stay-at-home dad might mean selling the house they’d bought in Salem just three years ago.
But, he said, it turned out that their daughter Clara was born at the perfect time.
Starting on Jan. 1, 2021, most workers in Massachusetts have been able to access paid family and medical leave. This means that Zamborlini was able to avoid leaving his job and continue getting paid as he took care of his newborn. By passing the law, Massachusetts joined a small number of states — and a large number of countries — that offer people time to care for a loved one or deal with their own medical situation while paying a portion of their income.
However, the law’s rollout has had ups and downs. One major challenge, GBH News has learned, is that some people have not been receiving their payments from the state, or their checks have arrived many weeks late.
The Department of Family and Medical Leave's Facebook page is littered with unhappy Massachusetts residents fretting about overdue bills and fearing losing their homes as they wait for payments from the state.
“Praying this week I receive payment,” wrote Kristin Cameron on the Facebook page, including that she had been waiting several weeks already. “I have 3 kiddos and our mortgage as well as other bills are going to be past due and we need groceries. I am starting to panic. I can’t believe this.”
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Massachusetts' Secretary of Labor and Workforce Development Rosalin Acosta acknowledged the delay in payments in a virtual town hall on Feb. 18.
“The timelines are longer than originally estimated for a variety of reasons, but we appreciate your patience as we work to process all of these claims,” she said.
“This is good government 101”
Zamborlini is part-way through his three months of paid leave with Clara. Much of their time together is spent listening to music from Brazil and speaking Zamborlini’s native language, Portuguese.
“It's just amazing to be able to share everything that I know with her,” he said. “It's just truly phenomenal.”
Zamborlini, who helped petition for the law’s passage, was eager to apply for leave and impressed with the application process. He said the online application was shockingly easy, something you could complete in five minutes.
“This is good government 101, how to properly roll out a really simple user-friendly application,” he said. “The state should be bragging about this left and right.”
The state contracted with a company, called Nava, which specifically focuses on making sure that getting government benefits isn’t too onerous or burdensome.
Most workers in Massachusetts are able to apply for up to 26 weeks of paid leave in a given year for family or medical reasons. For bonding with a new child, parents are able to receive 12 weeks of leave. The state’s program is distinct from the federally mandated benefits under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
Late payments from the state
The Massachusetts law is funded through a tax on employees and many employers that went into effect in October 2019. But that tax was implemented only after a lot of scrambling and a three-month delay, which gave businesses more time to prepare. Now, as workers have begun receiving benefits — from a pool they’ve paid into for 15 months — there is more scrambling, as the state struggles to make timely payments.
Zamborlini started his leave on Jan. 4 and waited patiently for the 7-day waiting period to pass before he would be paid. But as the end of the month approached, he had still not received any money. With bills coming due, he started calling the Department of Family and Medical Leave’s call center.
He said he often got the same response, “‘You should be getting a check in the mail next week.’ Nothing. Call back. All right, where is the check? Where's the money at?’ ‘Coming next week.’ Nothing. Call back again. ‘Coming next week.’ Nothing. Call back again. ‘It's coming next week.’”
As this routine of being promised imminent payment continued, Zamborlini said, late fees were piling up and he was forced to pull money out of savings. Eventually, he received payment on Feb. 16, more than six weeks after going on leave.
“Six or seven weeks defeats the purpose of it,” said State Rep. Ken Gordon of Bedford, who sponsored the initial legislation.
The late payments came as news to Gordon, who said the whole idea behind the law was to let families — regardless of how much money they have — be with a newborn, a sick relative or recover themselves from an illness without having to worry about money.
“The population that I really had in mind were those that couldn't afford to take unpaid leave,” he said.
However, Gordon added, he is hopeful that this is simply the state working out the kinks as a new system gets up and running.
The state’s Department of Family and Medical Leave declined numerous requests for an on-the-record interview and did not answer questions about how many people have been affected by the slow payments.
However, in the Feb. 18 virtual town hall, Acosta said the state had received a “very high” number of claimants since the year started, and that was contributing to the delays. She said people can help speed things along by filling out applications completely and providing color copies of the right documents.
“And unfortunately, failure to do any of these will result in a longer processing time,” she said.
In an email, a spokesperson for the Department of Family and Medical Leave said they are adding more employees to the call center to improve customer service and, as of mid-February, the majority of some 3,400 claimants had been paid. The spokesperson did not say how long the claimants had to wait before being paid.
Zamborlini said he worries about families that are living paycheck to paycheck.
“We had to tap into our savings a little bit," he said. "But what if we had no savings?”