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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."

Paid Family Leave Gains Traction With Washington Republicans


The idea of giving workers paid time off to care for a new baby or an elderly parent has long been a priority of the left. But now the idea is gaining traction with some Republicans in the Washington Legislature.

Workers in Washington state are already eligible for up to 24 weeks of unpaid family and medical leave under state and federal law. A decade ago the Washington Legislature passed a paid family leave program, but never funded it. Now Washington Democrats and their labor allies are making a hard push to finally fund and expand that program.

Historically, Washington Republicans and their business allies have been wary. But that may be changing.

“I think it has begun to change,” House Republican Floor Leader J.T. Wilcox said. “And we’re going to engage in the discussion about paid family leave. I think you’re going to see strong efforts to have a compromise.”

Wilcox said paid family leave is an example of an issue that resonates with voters in places like Federal Way, a Seattle exurb where Republicans just lost two House seats.

Wilcox also noted that House Republicans recently introduced bills dealing with equal pay for women and accommodating pregnant workers in the workplace -- issues that labor-backed Democrats have been pushing for years.

As for paid family leave, the House Labor and Workplace Standards Committee held a public hearing Thursday on a proposal sponsored by several Democrats. It would provide up to 26 weeks of paid leave to care for a new child, a family member’s serious illness or in a case of a “military exigency” beginning in October 2019. The bill would also provide 12 weeks of leave for an individual’s own serious illness beginning in October 2020. The leave would be funded through a 0.255 percent payroll tax on employers who could pass along half the cost to their employees. The maximum benefit under the proposed law would be $1,000 a week with annual adjustments.

By contrast, the current paid family leave law that’s been on the books in Washington since 2007, but never funded, would provide a maximum of $250 per week for up to five weeks of leave only to care for a new child.

In a sign of growing bipartisan interest in the issue, several Republicans in the Washington state Senate have introduced their own paid family leave proposal. It would provide Washington workers up to eight weeks of paid leave beginning in 2020 with an initial maximum weekly benefit of about $550. That leave would grow to 12 weeks by 2023 and the weekly benefit would ratchet up too. Employees, not employers, would pay for the benefit through a payroll deduction.

Last November, Washington voters passed Initiative 1433, which requires employers to provide their employees up to seven paid sick leave days a year.

J.T. Wilcox spoke with Austin Jenkins on TVW’s “Inside Olympia” program.

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."