OLYMPIA — The Washington Legislature on Friday approved a paid family leave program that offers workers paid time off for the birth or adoption of a child or for the serious medical condition of the worker or the worker’s family member.
The measure passed the House on a 65-29 vote shortly after the Senate passed it on a 37-12 vote.
The bill, which was a compromise reached between Republicans and Democrats after weeks of negotiation, offers eligible workers 12 weeks of either leave beginning in 2020, or 16 weeks for a combination of both. An additional two weeks may be used if there is a serious health condition with a pregnancy.
The bill closes the loop on work left unfinished by the 2007 Legislature. That year, lawmakers created a paid family leave program that required many employers to offer five weeks of paid time off for new parents. But they never came up with a way to pay for the benefit, resulting in an indefinite delay of its implementation.
Republican Sen. Joe Fain said that lawmakers this year tried to fulfill the promise first set up by that initial measure.
Fain choked up while speaking about the time he was able to spend with his son after his birth last year. He noted that unlike some women who need to go back to work just weeks after the birth of a child, his wife was able to take 12 weeks off through her work’s policy, and that he was available to be home as well because the Legislature wasn’t in session.
“I was able to spend those times at home, and rock my child to sleep every night,” he said. “I know how important that was to me. I want other families to have what I had.”
Currently, just four states guarantee paid family leave: California, New Jersey, Rhode Island and New York, though New York’s program doesn’t take effect until next year. The District of Columbia earlier this year also approved a paid family leave program, though it doesn’t take effect until July 2020.
Under the measure proposed in Washington state, both employers and employees pay into the system, and weekly benefits are calculated 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 be capped at $1,000 a week. Workers who earn less than the state average would get 90 percent of their income.
Self-employed individuals who elect coverage pay only the employee share of the premiums, and employers with 50 or fewer employees are exempt from paying the employer share of the premiums. Companies that already offer such programs can opt out, as long as they are at least equivalent to the state program.
Premiums of 0.4 percent of wages would start being collected on Jan. 1, 2019, with 63 percent paid by employees and 37 percent paid by the employers.
According to a Senate calculator, an employee who makes $50,000 a year would pay $2.42 a week, while their employer would pay $1.42 a week, for a weekly benefit of about $703.
Republican Rep. Cary Condotta said that when combined with the recent initiative to increase minimum wage and sick leave that was approved by voters last November, the burden is too much on small businesses.
“On its own principles, it’s a good idea, he said. “The problem is when you combine it with everything else.”
Democratic Rep. Javier Valdez said that by passing the measure, the Legislature was “standing up for working families in every corner of our state.”
“No one should ever have to choose between caring for a family member or paying their bills,” he said.