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Will Washington State Pass Paid Family Leave?

Despite current politics — or perhaps because of them — this could finally happen

Published on: March 01, 2017

mother and baby

On a cold Tuesday in January, more than 50 men, women and children gathered in Olympia to help launch a campaign organized by the Washington Work and Family Coalition (WWFC), a grassroots group that lobbies for family-related workplace policies.

Some Seattleites in the group had braved icy conditions, delayed school start times and that notorious Interstate 5 traffic to attend the press conference. Participants sat on the steps of the Capitol as Rep. June Robinson, D-Everett, and Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, introduced the paid family and medical leave bill they hope to turn into state law during this year’s regular legislative session.

The goal: Finally provide paid family and medical leave to families in Washington state.

The difference paid leave could make

This is the first time since 2007 that paid family leave proposals have been introduced by both sides of the aisle in the state legislature. It’s no wonder: Paid family leave has wide voter support. In a March 2016 poll conducted by Lake Research Partners, 72 percent of surveyed registered voters supported passing paid family and medical leave. (The survey didn’t ask for political party affiliation.)

West Seattle Helpline executive director Chris Langeler says now is the time to implement paid family and medical leave. Because West Seattle Helpline provides emergency services to at-risk individuals and families, he sees a lot of people who have needed a program like paid leave.

“For the folks we serve and thousands more throughout the state, the lack of paid family and medical leave is putting them in unfair, frightening and dangerous situations,” Langeler says. “It’s an easy, fair and affordable way to make families safer, healthier and less likely to find themselves in crisis because of an unforeseeable health issue, which could happen to any of us.”

According to Langeler, enacting paid leave will do more than help those who use it. “It would allow us to dedicate more resources to services that prevent crises — keeping our neighbors healthy and safe.”

mother on maternity leave Just a couple of bills

The paid family leave bill developed by WWFC is in both the Senate (SB 5032) and the House of Representatives (HB 1116). In both, Washington state workers could use extended paid leave for the birth or adoption of a child, a personal health emergency or the care of an ill family member. Funding would be split between employees and employers — costing a typical employee about $2 a week, according to Robinson and Keiser.

There’s a second paid family leave proposal, too: SB 5149 from Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn. Leave provided through SB 5149 would be fully paid by employees (not shared with employers as in the other plan). Employees would pay an estimated $3 a week, according to Fain.

But wait: Didn’t Washington already pass paid family leave? Yes and no. Back in 2007, it passed but without a funding plan. Then came the 2008 Great Recession, and any hopes of adequate funding quickly dried up.

So here we are, a decade later, with two new options on the table. And, unlike the 2007 policy, these proposals specify how they’d be funded.

“Ultimately, the best-case scenario is that one bill would pass [in both the Senate and the House],” says Marilyn Watkins, policy director for the Economic Opportunity Institute, which convenes the WWFC. Of course, Watkins hopes the bill her organization is supporting, SB 5032/HB 1116, makes it through: “[I hope] sometime in early May, we’ll all stand behind Gov. Jay Inslee when our bill becomes the law.”

As of press time, SB 5032 and SB 5149 were still being discussed by committees, and HB 1116 had passed the first step toward legislative approval by moving out of the House Labor and Workplace Standards Committee. Updates are expected throughout the end of February and into March. The legislative session is scheduled to end by April 23.

How do the bills differ?        

The bill WWFC supports, SB 5032/HB 1116 (Keiser and Robinson’s), offers up to 26 weeks of paid family leave, starting in October 2019, and up to 12 weeks of paid medical leave, starting in October 2020. The benefit would cover all employees who worked 340 hours during the qualifying year.

No family’s difficulties should be manifested in spending less time with your child.

Meanwhile, SB 5149 (Fain’s) offers workers up to eight weeks of paid leave beginning in 2020 (that be 12 weeks by 2023). It applies to all employees who worked at least 26 consecutive weeks; part-time employees would be eligible after 175 days of regular employment.

As for the benefit amount, final numbers are in flux but Fain’s will likely offer a weekly benefit of up to 50 percent of an employee’s average wage — capped at an estimated $541 for 2020 and increasing annually until 2023 (67 percent of an employee’s wage, capped at an estimated $725). Meanwhile, SB 5032/HB 1116 (Keiser and Robinson’s) will likely offer a weekly benefit capped at $1,000.

Despite these differences, proponents of paid leave say they are just happy to see both sides of the aisle talking about these options.

“I’m going to stay open-minded during this negotiation. I really want to see something get passed,” says Fain, who recently welcomed a child. “Even with my wife’s work providing paid family leave, it’s exhausting to make ends meet,” he says. “No family’s difficulties should be manifested in spending less time with your child.”

In Jan. 30 testimony before the Senate Committee, Watkins offered her thoughts on the differences: “We are pleased with the bipartisan interest in paid family and medical leave, but it’s important that we build a program right from the start. We’ve spent years talking with business owners, studying the health research and the research on other state programs . . . All of that input and research is reflected in [SB 5032/HB 1116].”

The best news? Elected officials in 2017 are more eager than ever to talk to their constituents, says MomsRising executive director and CEO Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, who supports SB 5032/HB 1116.

“Many representatives have been thrown for a loop with the outcome of this presidential election,” says Rowe-Finkbeiner. “I was worried there would be increased resistance to hearing from people. Instead, the opposite has happened: The door has opened wider.”

Your turn

Legislators are deciding right now if paid family leave will become state law in 2017. While lawmakers definitely notice when voters show up in Olympia, Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner of MomsRising says contacting your legislator works, too. “Call your legislator and tell them a strong paid family and medical leave bill that covers everybody in Washington state is important to you.”

“After you call your legislator, text five of your neighbors or friends and ask them to do the same,” adds Maggie Humphreys, the Washington state organizer for MomsRising. “I can’t even begin to underline how powerful your story, your letter, your call or your physical presence is; it’s really remarkable.”

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