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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Washington Workers Will Get Paid Family, Medical Leave Benefits Beginning In 2020??

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network
Republican state Senator Joe Fain holds his son as he speaks at a rally celebrating passage of a bipartisan paid family leave bill that was signed into law on Wednesday.

Beginning in 2020, workers in Washington will be eligible for paid family and medical leave through a new state program funded by employee and employer contributions. ??

Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, signed the legislation into law Wednesday following a rally on the north steps of the Washington Capitol. He was flanked by supporters of paid leave, including parent advocates, labor unions and some businesses.  ??

“We know that states must lead on this common sense policy,” Inslee said. “This is not just a promise this is a program with meat on the bones.”

The new law is the result of months of behind-the-scenes negotiations between business and labor groups and a bipartisan coalition of state lawmakers.??

'It should have been a right'

“This will make such a massive impact on the workers of Washington state,” said Sara Reilly, who with her husband Nathan co-owns two restaurants in Olympia and has, herself, taken time off from work to recover from surgery and, recently, to take care of her dying mother. “It was a privilege,” she said of the time with her mother, “but it shouldn't have been. It should have been a right.”

Under the new law, employees who have worked at least 820 hours in the past year will be eligible for up to 12 weeks of paid family leave to care for a new child or a close family member who has a serious medical condition. ??

In addition, workers will be eligible for up to 12 weeks of paid medical leave to attend to their own serious health issues. The program will also apply to military families who are coping with exigent circumstances, such as emergency child care needs because of a sudden deployment. ??

Under certain circumstances workers can combine family and medical leave for up to 16 weeks of benefit. A serious complication with a pregnancy would result in two additional weeks of paid leave for a total of 18 weeks of maximum benefit in a year. ??

The law requires that employees take the state paid leave at the same time, or concurrent to, the use of unpaid federal Family and Medical Leave or FMLA. It will replace a 1989 state Family Leave Act.

Washington becomes the fifth state to adopt a paid family and medical leave program after California, New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island. Earlier this year, the District of Columbia also adopted a paid leave program.??

‘I just want more families to have that’

The prime sponsor of the legislation was Republican state Sen. Joe Fain of Auburn. During final passage of the measure, he choked up on the floor of the Washington Senate when describing the time he had with his newborn son. ??

“I don’t need a study, I don’t need a report to tell me that what I had with my child will be something that I cherish for the rest of my life and I just want more families to have that,” Fain said.??

Fain cited a 2012 survey that suggested 25 percent of working mothers return to work within two weeks of giving birth. Studies have shown there are lasting benefits to children when they are allowed to bond with a parent during their first weeks. ??

Washington has had a paid family leave insurance program on the books since 2007, but it was never funded. The original plan called for $250 per week of benefits for up to five weeks. Fain called the program an “unmet promise to the people of Washington state.”??

The new program will offer eligible employees up to $1,000 per week. Employees and employers will split the cost of the program with workers paying about a quarter of a percent of their wages beginning Jan 1, 2019.

That means a minimum wage worker working full time would contribute $1.36 per week and their employer would pay 80 cents. Someone making $54,000 a year would pay $2.60 a week and their employer would contribute about $1.50 a week. That’s according to an analysis by the Economic Opportunity Institute (EOI) in Seattle, a supporter of paid leave programs. ??

“I think it will change lives. I know it will change lives,” said Marilyn Watkins with EOI. ??

Exclusions and opposition

Employers with 50 or fewer employees will be exempt from paying the employer share of the premium. And businesses that offer their employees a comparable family and medical leave plan will be allowed to opt out of the state-run program.??

Under the program, small businesses will also be able to obtain grants to help defray the cost of hiring a temporary employee to replace a worker who is on leave. ??

Separately, beginning in January 2018, employees in Washington will begin earning paid sick leave at the rate of one hour for every 40 hours worked. That’s because of a voter-approved initiative, I-1433, in 2016. ??

The success of that initiative, and the potential for a future labor-backed initiative on paid family leave, was a key factor that prompted some business groups to negotiate a paid family leave bill in the legislature this year.??

However, the measure still faced opposition from some Republicans in both the Washington House and Senate. ??

“This is another mandate on business, it is being driven for the wrong priorities, I believe, and under the wrong circumstances,” said Republican state Sen. Michael Baumgartner of Spokane. ?

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."