OLYMPIA – Late Friday evening, Washington lawmakers passed a historic bipartisan legislation that will provide paid family and medical leave benefits to working Washingtonians.
The bill is the result of months of negotiations among legislators, the Washington Working Families Coalition and leaders from the business community. Senate Bill 5975 will be funded by contributions from both employers and employees. Benefits will begin in January 2020.
“To care for a baby or an aging parent, paid family leave is the gift of time and peace of mind that we can be there for our families, put food on the table and go back to a job that is secure,” said Rep. June Robinson, D-Everett, who authored the original House bill. “This legislation, which is both worker-friendly and fiscally responsible, is good for families, smart for business, and keeps our state moving forward.”
The benefit amount will be determined on a progressive scale, a first in the United States, with low-wage workers receiving up to 90 percent of their salary or wages while on leave. Once a worker qualifies for the program, the worker can change jobs without losing coverage. The statewide program’s portability better accommodates a modern workforce in which workers change jobs with increasing frequency.
“Too often moms and dads are not able to take time to bond with and care for their newborn, or recover from a serious injury,” said Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, the measure’s prime sponsor. “Our paid family and medical leave plan provides economic stability for working families, while respecting the needs of employers. This plan represents what is possible when Republicans and Democrats work together in the best interest of our state.”
All qualified employees will be eligible for up to 12 paid weeks of medical or family leave with a combined annual maximum of 16 total weeks. Individuals with pregnancy related complications may take an additional two weeks of medical leave.
“Washington state has proved once again that we are leaders for the cause of working families and shown that even on issues with a vast range of perspectives, bipartisan compromise is possible when the focus stays on the common good,” said Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, the lead Senate Democratic negotiator. “I was devastated when my first paid family leave law that was adopted in 2007 was ultimately defunded in the wake of the Great Recession. But through tough-minded bipartisan negotiations, we have developed a program that will become a cornerstone for thriving families and successful businesses.”
Average premiums will cost about $4 a week per employee (shared between the employer and employee) with a maximum benefit of $1,000 a week. The cost of the leave program will be shared with employee premiums accounting for about 63 percent and employers contributing 37 percent. Considerations have been made for small businesses, including opt-in only premium contributions for employers with 50 or fewer employees. Employees of businesses with fewer than 50 workers are still covered by the benefit. Businesses with 150 or fewer employees would also be eligible for a grant for the cost to cover the duties of employees taking leave.
“We want to give employees a paid family leave option without penalizing our small businesses. It is a completely voluntary program for our small employers and they would not be required to pay the premiums. A training grant is also available to help them hire a temporary worker if needed,” said Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg. “This is a good compromise plan that protects small business by providing many benefits that a paid family leave plan enacted outside of the Legislature would likely not provide. At the same time, it gives employees the opportunity to take paid leave to care for a new child or a loved one who may have health issues.”
Rep. Gina McCabe, R-Goldendale, Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, Sen. Marko Liias, D-Mukilteo, and Sen. Steve Conway, D-South Tacoma also played key roles aiding negotiations.
The program will be managed by the Employment Security Department, which will begin collecting premiums on Jan. 1, 2019, and start benefit payments on Jan. 1, 2020.
The Legislature approved legislation authorizing paid family leave in 2007 but never identified a funding source to implement the program.
Opinion research conducted through a federal grant secured by Gov. Jay Inslee in 2016 showed that support for paid family leave was high across all demographics, including gender, age, income, political affiliation, marital status and employment status.
Washington will be just the fifth state with a comprehensive paid family and medical leave insurance program in the country, joining California, New Jersey, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia, as well as New York where the program will begin in 2018.
The bill passed the Senate on a 37-12 vote and the House of Representatives on a 65-29 vote. It now heads to the governor’s desk.