Washington lawmakers, groups, discussing paid family leave

By RACHEL LA CORTE / Associated Press

OLYMPIA — As Washington lawmakers continue to wrestle with reaching agreement on a two-year state budget, another group of negotiators has been meeting regularly to discuss another topic: paid family leave.

Several bipartisan legislators — along with representatives from labor and business —have been taking advantage of the extra time provided by the Legislature’s need to go into double overtime because of ongoing budget talks.

While various family leave bills were introduced or drafted during the regular 105-day legislative session that started in January, none received floor votes. However negotiators say the two 30-day special sessions that have been called since the regular session ended in April have allowed them to have productive meetings.

“The fact that the budget is taking so long has given us additional time to work on this really important issue,” said Democratic Rep. June Robinson, one of the Democratic negotiators.

Lawmakers are hoping they can complete the work left unfinished by the 2007 Legislature. That year, lawmakers created a paid family leave program that required many employers to offer five weeks of paid time off for new parents. But they never came up with a way to pay for the benefit, resulting in an indefinite delay of its implementation.

“We definitely don’t want something like that to happen again,” Robinson said. “That would just set us way back in terms of having this helpful policy for workers and families in the state.”

Currently, just four states guarantee paid family leave: California, New Jersey, Rhode Island and New York, though New York’s program doesn’t take effect until next year. The District of Columbia earlier this year also approved a paid family leave program, though it doesn’t take effect until July 2020.

The Washington state group has many elements that it needs to consider: whether the leave should just cover birth or adoption of a child, or for a family member’s serious health condition or other reasons; how long the leave should be; how much of a weekly benefit to provide; and, most importantly, how to pay for it.

Gary Chandler, vice president of government affairs at the Association of Washington Business, said that the goal is to “come up with a reasonable package that business can support, especially small businesses.”

Advocacy group Mom’s Rising was a driving force behind Washington state’s 2007 law, and Maggie Humphreys, the group’s Washington state director and a member of the negotiating team, said that having all of the groups at the table this year helps increase the chance for success for the state’s working moms.

“We need economic policies s that can really ensure women can balance the demands of caregiving and family in a way that allows them to participate fully in the workforce,” she said.

Republican Sen. Joe Fain, one of the negotiators, said that the desire by multiple groups to be at the table this year on the issue stems not only from increased local and national conversations, but also by the recent successes by labor groups at the ballot box in Washington state, like the recent initiative to increase minimum wage and sick leave that was approved by voters last November.

“This is not without controversy,” Fain said. “But there’s also a human side to it. And I think that there is a really good faith attempt by those in the labor community to understand how businesses can be impacted by this, and good faith in the business community to understand that there is a change in the landscape of our workforce.”

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