Washingtonians sent tens of thousands of emails and made hundreds of visits to legislators over the past few months with the simple message: a new baby, ailing parent, or cancer diagnosis should not mean financial calamity. On June 30, the Washington legislature responded, passing a comprehensive paid family and medical leave program with strong bipartisan support.
The Washington Work and Family Coalition (WWFC), convened by the Economic Opportunity Institute, has been working towards this day for more than a decade. We’ve done the research and listened to the needs of working people and small business owners across the state. And over the past decade, labor and community organizations have built the power and trust that made this huge victory possible through organizing city and state level campaigns, including spearheading last year’s successful Initiative 1433, which is raising the minimum wage and setting paid sick days standards statewide.
Under Washington’s new paid family and medical leave program, beginning January 1, 2020 workers will have access to up to 12 weeks paid family leave and 12 weeks disability leave, with a total of up to 16 weeks available per year between the two types of leave. Workers with a pregnancy-related complication will be able to take up to 14 weeks disability leave and 18 weeks total. Family leave includes caring for a newborn or newly placed adopted or foster child; caring for a seriously ill child, spouse, parent, parent-in-law, sibling, grandparent, or grandchild; or dealing with a family member’s military deployment or service-related injury.
Workers and employers will jointly fund this statewide insurance program. A minimum wage worker who works full time will pay $1.36 per week, and her employer will contribute $.80. Someone making $54,000 per year will pay about $2.60 and the employer $1.50 per week. Workers who need time off for a covered reason will apply for benefits from the state fund.
Benefits are structured so that everyone can afford to take the leave they need. Lower-wage workers will get 90% of their usual weekly wage, with the percentage gradually declining to a top benefit of $1,000 per week.
Today, too many workers struggle without sufficient paid leave. That was the case when Christina and Tyler of Marysville welcomed their son Calvin into the world. Neither had paid leave at their restaurant jobs, and Christina ended up needing an emergency C-section. Tyler spent a few days with her and their new son, then returned to work, leaving her to heal from major surgery and care for Calvin on her own. Without Christina’s wages also coming in, they fell behind on bills.
Christina was one of the many workers, medical professionals, small business owners, and Work and Family Coalition members who came to Olympia to advocate for a paid family and medical leave program.
2017 was the first year legislators of both parties introduced paid family leave bills. In January, our coalition announced our 2017 policy proposal with legislative sponsors, Representative June Robinson (D-Everett) and Senator Karen Keiser (D-Des Moines). Senator Joe Fain (R-Auburn) also introduced a policy. Recognizing the popularity of the issue among voters and policymakers, and the viability of a paid family leave proposal at the ballot, major business groups including the Association of Washington Business and the Washington Hospitality Association indicated a willingness to work towards common ground on a paid family and medical leave program.
Over nearly 3 months, teams of negotiators from the WWFC and the business community met with the three bill sponsors and additional legislators from both parties. In this era of hyper-partisanship, the conversations that took place at that table were truly remarkable. We listened respectfully. We tried to understand each other’s goals and concerns and worked together to come up with creative solutions to achieve the results we wanted without causing other problems. Sometimes we compromised. In the end, each side had to give up some things they wanted, but we crafted a strong universal policy that will be a huge step forward for workers and families.
One of the innovations of that table was building in supports for small businesses. Companies with fewer than 50 employees will not be required to pay the employer share of premiums. Their employees will pay the same amount they would in a larger company and have access to the same benefits. Those smaller firms can voluntarily pay premiums and become eligible for grants (accessible to companies with up to 150 employees) to cover extra costs when someone goes out on extended leave. Employers that prefer to offer their own leave programs of at least equal length and benefit amount may apply for a waiver from the state program.
Only four other states now have paid family and medical leave programs (CA, NJ, RI, and NY), and all of them added family leave to existing state disability programs dating back to the 1940s.
Washington’s Paid Family and Medical Leave program is a win for workers, families, business, and communities across the state, and sets a new model that other states can follow. We are deeply grateful for our broad coalition and to Senator Keiser, Representative Robinson, and Senator Fain for their legislative leadership in this victory for us all.