Paid Family Leave Battle Looms

Paid Family Leave Battle Looms
Washington state lawmakers are debating the merits of proposed paid family leave legislation, early in the 2017 session. Seen here: the Washington State House of Representatives meeting in the first week of the year. Photo: Mike Richards.

Employees in Washington state could claim up to 38 weeks of paid family and sick leave under companion bills introduced in the House and Senate last week, HB 1116 and SB 5032. The bills zero in on implementing leave provisions above and beyond those in 2007 framework legislation, and in Initiative 1433 approved by voters last November. Supporters say the legislation would provide warranted support for families in times of need, while opponents say costs to employers would be prohibitive.

A 2013 State Senate bill to allow a maximum of 24 weeks of paid family leave would have cost employers and employees $826 million, according to the Office of Financial Management. It stalled in the House.

Up To 38 Weeks Of Paid Leave Yearly

The 2017 companion bills would set the maximum number of weeks an employee can request for family and medical leave to 26, starting in 2019, with a weekly maximum benefit of $1,000. By 2020, under the legislation, an employee could get an additional 12 weeks paid leave for a “serious health condition.”

Under this year’s bills, paid family leave includes caring for a sick family member, injured military member, newborn baby or a newly adopted child. Employers would be able to offload no more than fifty percent of premium costs to workers, under the legislation.

The maximum of 38 weeks leave per year in this year’s bills compares to the much lower ceiling contemplated in the legislature’s approved 2007 paid family leave framework, of five weeks. Though okayed by lawmakers, that measure was never implemented, because it was contingent on agreement around an implementation date and funding mechanism.

In 2009, further legislation delayed creation of a paid family leave system until 2012. Since the failed 2013 bill, there had been no attempts by lawmakers to take up the topic again, until this year. However, Initiative 1433 was approved by Washington voters in November. Although I-1433’s main provision is to raise the state’s minimum wage to $13.50 by 2020, it would also in 2018 require employers to provide one hour of paid sick leave for every 40 hours worked.

Costs To Employers Prohibitive

Of the 38-week leave ceiling in the 2017 bills, State Rep. Matt Manweller (R-13) said, “That’s a half a year of not going to work and getting paid…standard businesses cannot afford to pay an employee for half a year to not come to work. They also have to pay for a replacement worker.”

Erin Shannon, Director of the Center for Small Business at the Washington Policy Center, recently wrote, “Workers could apply for both benefits in the same year, meaning they could receive 38 weeks of paid leave in one year.  Employees would be eligible for the paid leave upon working just 340 hours…an average of 6.5 hours per week.”

Shannon continued, “Only four states, California, New Jersey, Rhode Island and New York, have laws mandating paid family and medical leave. What is more, all four states are completely employee-funded, relying solely on payroll taxes paid by workers. SB 5032 would extend this burden to employers…”

Families Need Relief, Support

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan (D-47) said that paid family leave “has been on the books for ten years,” and that there is strong interest among his caucus members in implementing some form of the benefit.

Asked about the concerns of opponents, Sullivan said, “We have to look at cumulative impacts on business, but all the studies show the first days and years” of a child’s life are crucial in terms of parental presence and involvement.

The Senate bill’s sponsor Sen. Karen Keiser (D-33) said in a statement, “All of us have experienced a family or health crisis for which a couple of sick days just weren’t enough, whether it was a premature baby, an unexpected illness, or the failing health of a parent. Paid family and medical leave would mean better health outcomes for Washington babies, moms, and families in every stage of life.”

House Alternative Measure Coming

Manweller told Lens he is planning on introducing his own paid family leave bill, for a maximum of 12 weeks annually. He said it would require both employers and employees to pay an estimated $1.75 a week per worker, and would be accompanied by a Business and Occupation (B&O) tax credit. Manweller’s planned bill would also exempt businesses with 10 employees or fewer, and start sooner than under the current bills.

Manweller said his bill, to be filed shortly, would only cover paid leave for childbirth and adoption, because I-1433 already covers paid sick leave.

Manweller said, “We won’t create an additional state benefit on top of the ones the voters just adopted. All we’re doing is filling in the gaps of the initiative.”

For now, the spotlight is on the bills already introduced. The House Labor and Workplace Standards Committee will hold a public hearing on HB 1116 on Thursday, January 19, at 8 a.m.

Follow-upPaid Family Leave Concerns IntensifyLens, 1/26/17

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