By Rachel La Corte Associated Press
OLYMPIA — Six years ago, Washington state lawmakers approved a program giving parents five weeks of paid time off to be with a new child.
But the question of how to pay for the program was never answered, and now some lawmakers are looking to remove it from the books, while the senator who introduced the bill is looking to expand the program. Its start already has been delayed until 2015.
The bill, passed with much fanfare in 2007, was supposed to start paying benefits of up to $250 a week starting in October 2009. But without an agreed-upon funding source, the Legislature has postponed its implementation twice.
“It may have seemed like a good idea, but we don’t have the money to do it,” said Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, who is sponsoring the measure to repeal the law. “We need to face the reality and deal with it.”
Sen. Karen Keiser, a Democrat from Kent who sponsored the initial bill, decried any effort to repeal the law.
“It’s an appalling move at a time when middleclass families are having a hard time making things work,” she said. “We’re getting steady again in our economy. It’s time to look forward.”
Keiser on Thursday introduced her own bill to expand the underlying measure to include caring for a family member or an employee’s own disability. Her bill would pay two-thirds of a worker’s pay a week, up to $1,000 a week, and would expand the time allowed from five weeks to 12 weeks. The program would be paid for with a .01 percent payroll tax on both employees and employers starting in 2014, and benefits would start in October 2015.
Keiser said she based her new measure on laws in California and New Jersey.
“I am not backing off and not going to give up this endeavor that working families have some economic security if they have a family crisis, a new baby or a disability,” she said. “Working families deserve that.”
Rep. Tami Green, D-Tacoma, said she’ll be introducing a companion bill in the House in the coming days.
“This is one of those bills where we’re all in this together,” she said. “We’re all going to benefit from this.”
Braun’s bill has 10 co-sponsors, including two Democrats who have joined with Republicans to form a new coalition this legislative session. The measure has its first public hearing Monday. Braun called Keiser’s counter-bill one of “good intentions, but good intentions aren’t always affordable.”
“We already have a program on the books that we can’t fund,” he said. “Expanding it seems contrary to public interests.”
Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, voted in favor of the paid family leave law when he was in the House, but he is now signed on to Braun’s repeal bill. He said some companies already are moving in the direction of paid family leave, but that taxpayers and businesses wouldn’t support a tax increase for a statewide program.
“It’s not realistic,” he said.
Sen. Janea Holmquist Newbry, R-Moses Lake, called the underlying law an “empty promise.”
“Instead of continually suspending it and dangling it out there and kicking the can down the road, I think the more logical and responsible thing to do is to remove it off the books,” said Holmquist Newbry, who is chairwoman of the Commerce and Labor Committee, where Braun’s bill will receive a hearing.
Holmquist Newbry said she didn’t know if she would give Keiser’s bill a hearing.
“If we can’t fund something that’s been on the books for biennia now, why you would even attempt to expand something is beyond my logic,” she said.
Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee does not support repealing the law, said spokesman David Postman.
“Gov. Inslee believes in the goals of the family medical leave act and the help it can give to working families in Washington,” Postman said, but cautioned that while the governor wants the law to remain on the books, “everyone should recognize that the state does not currently have the funds to properly implement it.”
Postman said that Inslee has not seen Keiser’s bill and could not comment on it.
A repeal of the state paid-leave law would have no impact on federal leave laws. Under federal law, paid leave is not required, but businesses with 50 or more employees must give workers up to 12 weeks of medical leave per year for themselves or to take care of a new child or ailing relative.
The state law requires the paid leave be taken concurrently with the federal leave.
The measure to repeal paid family leave is Senate Bill 5159. The measure to expand it is Senate Bill 5292.