Washington becomes fifth state to guarantee paid family leave

By Rachel La Corte

The Associated Press

OLYMPIA — Washington state is now among just a handful of states that guarantee paid family leave, following Gov. Jay Inslee’s signing Wednesday of a bipartisan plan approved by the Legislature.

The measure offers eligible workers 12 weeks paid time off for the birth or adoption of a child or for the serious medical condition of the worker or the worker’s family member beginning in 2020, or 16 weeks for a combination of both. An additional two weeks may be used if there is a serious health condition with a pregnancy.

Washington now joins four other states with paid family leave programs: California, New Jersey, Rhode Island and New York, though New York’s program doesn’t take effect until next year.

The District of Columbia earlier this year also approved a paid family leave law, though it doesn’t take effect until July 2020.

The plan in Washington state — passed by the Legislature on Friday — comes after months of negotiations between lawmakers and those in the business and labor communities, and closes the loop on work left unfinished by the 2007 Legislature.

That year, lawmakers created a paid family leave program that required many employers to offer five weeks of paid time off for new parents. But they never came up with a way to pay for the benefit, resulting in an indefinite delay of its implementation.

This year the business community was part of the discussion on legislative action, in part, because of recent successes by labor groups at the ballot box in Washington state, such as the recent initiative to increase minimum wage and sick leave that was approved by voters last November.

Under the new law, both employers and employees pay into the system, and weekly benefits are calculated based on a percentage of the employee’s wages and the state’s weekly average wage — which is currently $1,082 — though the amount paid out would be capped at $1,000 a week.

Workers who earn less than the state average would get 90 percent of their income. Employees must work at least 820 hours before qualifying for the benefit.

Self-employed individuals who elect coverage pay only the employee share of the premiums, and employers with 50 or fewer employees are exempt from paying the employer share of the premiums.

Companies that already offer such programs can opt out, as long as they are at least equivalent to the state program.

Premiums of 0.4 percent of wages would start being collected Jan. 1, 2019, with 63 percent paid by employees and 37 percent paid by the employers.

According to a Senate calculator, an employee who makes $50,000 a year would pay $2.42 a week, while the employer would pay $1.42 a week, for a weekly benefit of about $703.