State aims to fix paid leave law dormant since 2007

By Rachel La Corte

The Associated Press

OLYMPIA — A decade ago, Washington state created a paid family leave program that required many employers to offer five weeks of paid time off for new parents.

But the law that once offered hope to working parents quickly turned into an empty promise because state lawmakers never came up with a way to pay for the benefit, resulting in an indefinite delay of its implementation.

Now lawmakers from the state where companies such as Microsoft and Amazon already offer the benefit to their workers are gearing up to consider a host of bills in a bid to replace the dormant law with one that gives more time off for new parents and people who need to care for sick relatives — plus a higher weekly benefit than originally envisioned and a steady funding stream.

Legislative hearings on the various proposals started last Thursday.

If any of the measures pass, Washington would be added to the list of four states that guarantee paid family leave: California, New Jersey, Rhode Island and New York, though New York’s program doesn’t take effect until next year.

Seven other states will consider legislative proposals this year for paid family leave measures, according to The National Conference of State Legislatures.

Like many other Washington state employees, Jessup Coffin cobbled together vacation time with sick time and unpaid leave from his job when his daughter was born nearly three years ago.

The Seattle resident is now self-employed and could take off the time he needs but hopes lawmakers will approve paid leave.

“It puts everyone on a level playing field,” he said.

The original 2007 law exempted businesses with 25 or fewer employees and was supposed to go into effect in 2009, paying people who went on leave $250 weekly.

That’s far lower than what the other states have approved: California’s law offers up to $1,067 weekly for six weeks off to care for a new child or sick relative. New Jersey gives up to $524 for six weeks. Rhode Island’s maximum benefit is $752 weekly, and New York’s paid leave program will be based on a percentage of the state’s average weekly wage.

But all of the new Washington legislative proposals would be more generous than the original 2007 law.

Democratic Rep. June Robinson and Democratic Sen. Karen Keiser want 26 weeks of paid leave for the birth or adoption of a child, for a family member’s serious health condition or for leave needed for a military reason, starting Oct. 1, 2019. And a year later, people could take off up to 12 weeks of paid leave for their own serious health conditions.

Benefits would be based on a percentage of the employee’s wages and the state’s weekly average wage — which is currently $1,082, though the weekly amount paid out would initially be capped at $1,000.

“I think our constituents, the workers of the state of Washington, are really way overdue and the call for paid family leave is just getting stronger and stronger,” Robinson said.

The program would be funded with a 0.255 percent payroll tax on all employers, who would be allowed to deduct up to half of the amount from employees’ pay.

A competing time off bill introduced by Republican Sen. Joe Fain that would be funded via a payroll tax on employees would provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave for the care of a newborn or adopted child, caring for a family member with a serious health condition, the employee’s own serious health condition or for military leave.

It would be phased in, starting with eight weeks of paid family leave in 2020 and a weekly benefit of no more than about $541, based on employee wages, and maxing out with 12 weeks of time off in 2023, when the benefit would not exceed 67 percent of an employee’s wage, or 67 percent of the state’s average wage — which means the weekly amount would be capped at about $725.

Another proposal from Republican Rep. Matt Manweller would cover paid time off for the birth or adoption of a child, requiring the employees and employers to share the program’s cost. It would exempt businesses with 10 or fewer employees and would give a business tax credit to participating employers.

The Association of Washington Business — representing nearly 8,000 businesses in the state — has not yet taken a position on any of the legislative proposals.

Fain, a new father of a baby boy whose wife received company paid leave benefits, said “not every family is as fortunate as mine.”

“Government has a role to provide this kind of a safety net for families,” he said.