Boosting the middle class

To gauge the prudence and efficacy of public policy, the essential question is, “qui bono?” (Who benefits?) The question isn’t nuanced. Dress it up, spin it, recast a bill’s snooze-inducing language through a lobbyist’s lens. Facts are simply that.

The selling point for Family and Medical Leave Insurance (FMLI), a safety net and institutional necessity in uncertain times, is its affordability. With only 8 percent of businesses offering paid-family leave in Washington, options are limited, especially for middle-class households. State and federal law allows workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a newborn, recover from a serious illness, or help a dying family member. For workers with mortgages, school debt and other expenses, unpaid leave is financially devastating.

The economic squeeze is compounded by small businesses with 50 or fewer employees, which don’t need to provide unpaid leave. Many poor and part-time workers, in fact, have zero paid days off.

Marilyn Watkins, policy director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, underlined the social-justice component. “It should never be a matter of luck whether a parent can afford to spend the first precious weeks and months of life with their newborn child, or whether someone can recover from surgery before dragging themselves back to work,” Watkins said.

The value of a new Family and Medical Leave Insurance (FMLI) plan for Washington is that it’s (mostly) self-financing and won’t burden small businesses, the engine of the Northwest’s recovery. The plan augments the family-leave program established in 2007, providing up to 12 weeks to care for a new child or gravely ill family member, as well as 12 weeks for a worker’s own serious health condition.

Start-up costs are a little over $8 million per year for the first 2 years, or $17 million for the biennium. This amount would be recovered, since payroll premiums would begin in July 2014 (read: this would not be a charge on the general fund.) Total costs would be 0.2 percent of wages split between employers and employees. For someone earning $50,000, that translates into a weekly premium of 96 cents. FMLI’s Snohomish County proponents include HB 1457’s co-sponsor, Rep. Mike Sells, and SB 5292 co-sponsors Sens. Paull Shin and Nick Harper. It merits support.

“We talk about building the middle class. This bill goes right to the heart of the middle class,” Herald columnist John Burbank wrote earlier this month. “With this legislation, we enable children to get a strong start in life, cared for by their working parents. We enable parents to focus on their new children, without worrying about losing their jobs.”

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