10 years after the Washington legislature first approved a framework without a clear plan for implementation, Governor Jay Inslee has signed a bill into law mandating paid family and medical leave benefits for working Washingtonians. Employees would pay into their own family leave, while employers and employees would split the cost burden for providing medical leave. While some business stakeholders are supportive of the measure and consider it a step toward better protecting their employees, one legislator says the program may be rushed.
On Wednesday, July 5, Inslee signed SB 5975 into law, which was sponsored by Senate Majority Floor Leader Joe Fain (R-47). Cosponsors include Democratic Floor Leader Marko Liias (D-21), Democratic Caucus Chair John McCoy (D-38) and State Sen. Mark Miloscia (R-30). On June 30, the Senate approved the measure in a 37-12 vote. The same day, the measure passed the House in a 65-29 vote, with four excused.
On the Senate floor, Fain told colleagues his bill would allow parents to spend time with their newborn weeks after their birth, and would allow a person injured at home or an individual caring for an injured or sick loved one to take time off “in times of joy and times of sadness.”
Fain cited his own experience 14 months ago when his son was born, and how he cherished the time he had to rock his child to sleep or help him get ready in the morning.
“I know how important it’s been… because I’ve been down here for very late nights, and I know how much I miss him,” he continued. “I don’t want other families to go through that; I want other families to have what I had.”
State Sen. Michael Baumgartner (R-6) told colleagues he respected the effort to help Washington families in their times of need, but cited concern with the rushed manner of considering the bill and encouraged lawmakers to “take a broader view.”
“Washington state is already one of the toughest states in the country for small business,” he said. “We have a business regulatory and tax system designed in this state for the big guys.”
He urged colleagues to return to the issue in January, saying: “This is another mandate on business, it is being driven for the wrong priorities I believe and under the wrong circumstances, and it doesn’t need to be done a few hours before government shuts down.”
Under the law, Washington’s Employment Security Department (ESD) would administer the paid family and medical leave insurance program.
According to the bill report, an employer must provide eligible employees up to 12 weeks for each of paid family and medical leave annually, beginning in 2020. The benefits would max out at 16 weeks divided between both benefits and up to 18 weeks in the event of a pregnancy complication. To become eligible for benefits, an employee must work at least 820 hours.
An individual may file for and claim family leave in the event of the birth or placement of a child, military exigency or for a family member’s serious health condition. Employees may claim medical leave benefits for their own serious health condition as defined in the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) as “an illness, injury, impairment or physical or mental condition that involves inpatient care” or “continuing treatment by a health care provider.”
FMLA features a few notable differences from Washington’s new law:
-the leave would be unpaid, but job-protected;
-employees can claim up to 12 weeks leave annually;
-an individual must work 1,250 hours over the past 12 months to become eligible; and
-businesses with fewer than 50 employees are exempt.
In 2007, the legislature approved framework for a state family leave insurance program but was left unfunded, according to SB 5975’s report. The framework provided $250 a week for up to five weeks of benefits for employees on leave for the birth or placement of a child.
The new state law would offer benefits above and beyond the minimum wage initiative 1433 which mandates employers provide one hour paid sick leave per 40 hours worked as required by 2018.
The program will be funded through an initial premium rate of 0.4 percent of wages beginning on January 1, 2019, with two-thirds of the total premium rate going toward paid medical leave and one-third for family leave.
An employer may deduct 100 percent of family leave premiums and up to 45 percent of medical leave premiums from an employee’s wages. Employers would be responsible for paying the remaining 55 percent of medical leave premiums. Business owners with 50 or fewer employees would be exempt from paying their portion.
An employee may receive a maximum weekly benefit of $1,000, adjusted annually. Benefits would be set at 90 percent of the individual’s average weekly wage (AWW), with additional specifications if an employee earns more than half of the state’s AWW.
Employees found to be making false claims within the program will lose benefits for a period and must pay monetary penalties, increasing with each occurrence. Employers failing to make proper documentation or pay premiums would pay escalating penalties.
Small business owners would be eligible for grants if the business hires a temporary worker to fill in for an employee on leave for one week or more. The relief is capped at 10 grants per year, and one per employee on leave.
Premiums will begin accumulating on January 1, 2019, and will become available for employee use starting one year later.
Business stakeholders across several industries are optimistic the bill is a fair step in the right direction toward offering fair benefits for their workers.
“In the hospitality industry, our biggest asset is our employees,” said Anthony Anton, Washington Hospitality Association (WHA) president and CEO in a recent WHA press release. “This law protects our local businesses while allowing employees access to paid family leave benefits they can carry from job to job.”
Also supportive was Jan Teague, president and CEO for the Washington Retail Association (WRA). “For paid family leave, lawmakers have done not only what is best for employees, but have also provided protections for employers who are the foundation of our state economy,” she said in the release.