News Law and Policy

Washington State’s Working Families Score ‘Groundbreaking’ Paid Leave Victory (Updated)

Nicole Knight

The legislation offers a progressive financing mechanism that covers close to 100 percent of low-wage workers' income, meaning workers will no longer be forced to choose between a paycheck and their family.

UPDATE, July 6, 2:16 p.m.: Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee signed the paid family leave bill late Wednesday. Workers will be eligible for up to 12 weeks of paid family leave and 12 weeks of paid medical leave beginning in 2020.

Advocates are hailing a landmark law in Washington state that guarantees 16 weeks of paid family and medical leave as a model for the nation—and a boon for those who work for low wages.

The bipartisan measure cleared the Republican-led state senate and Democratic-led House on Friday. Gov. Jay Inslee (D) indicated he’ll sign it.

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The legislation offers a progressive financing mechanism that covers close to 100 percent of low-wage workers’ income, meaning workers will no longer be forced to choose between a paycheck and their family. 

“This is a truly groundbreaking victory for working families and a powerful model for the nation,” Debra L. Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, which advocates for paid family and medical leave, said in a statement

The law provides eligible workers up to 12 weeks of paid time off for the birth, fostering, or adoption of a child or to care for their own or a family member’s serious medical condition, with job protections. Workers can take a combination of up to 16 weeks of paid family and medical leave in a year. 

The United States lacks a national paid leave policy, and only five states or districts—California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New York, and the District of Columbia—have enacted paid family leave programs.

Nearly 80 percent of voters polled in November 2016 supported a federal policy guaranteeing 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave. In a Pew Research Center poll released in March, 85 percent supported paid medical leave, 82 percent backed paid maternity leave, and 69 percent supported paid paternity leave. But Democratic-sponsored bills in Congress to provide those benefits, such as the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, have gone nowhere, stymied by GOP opposition.

The Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act would offer up to 12 weeks of paid leave to care for a child, personal health condition, or a family member’s illness. Although the Trump administration’s budget included a federal paid family leave plan for birth and adoptive parents, advocates have said the proposal is inadequate and ignores that fact that most people in the United States take family and medical leave to care for a seriously ill family member or their own serious medical condition.

Washington state legislators passed a framework for paid leave in 2007, but provided no way to fund it—until now.

Getting diverse interests, including business groups and employers, on board in Washington state was the product of prolonged outreach and lobbying by a coalition of dozens of community groups. Members of MomsRising, which says it has more than 40,000 members in the state and a million nationwide, sent more than 35,000 emails to Washington State legislators and embarked on a paid-leave listening tour that began in Republican and rural areas of the state and stretched to Democratic strongholds like Seattle.

“This win is the result of many hands, many organizations, bipartisan legislators, moms, and labor, working together with businesses,” Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, executive director of MomsRising, told Rewire. “This was truly a multi-organization, grassroots statewide effort, and a new model for building paid family and medical leave from scratch.”

The Washington state program would benefit low-wage workers because those earning less than half of the state’s weekly average would receive 90 percent of their income—to a maximum of $1,000 per week. The benefits are based on a percentage of the worker’s average weekly wage and the state’s weekly average wage, which was $1,133 in 2016. 

The program is largely funded by workers, who will pay a premium of 0.4 percent of their wages each paycheck into a state-run insurance fund. This would cost a minimum-wage worker about 3 cents an hour, according to the bill’s sponsor. Employers are responsible for picking up at least 55 percent of the medical leave premium—or more if they choose to do so.

“This new law is an affordable and predictable solution to providing an important benefit for life’s emergencies,” Sara Reilly, co-owner of Darby’s Café and Three Magnets Brewing Co. in Olympia, Washington, said in a statement.

One in 20 low-wage workers have access to paid family leave, according to state Sen. Joe Fain (R-Auburn), the bill’s chief sponsor. Research suggests that paid family leave improves maternal and child health, boosts men’s involvement in child care, and increases mothers’ workforce participation. Fathers’ involvement in child rearing is associated with better language skills and social and cognitive development in children.

Despite these benefits, Fain said that fathers, on average, take only one day of leave for every month a mother takes.

“I know how important that was to me,” Fain said. “I want other families to have what I had.”

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