By Christina Pedersen
For The Herald
Washington families will ring in the new year with the usual fireworks, champagne and resolutions. But this year, our state is also celebrating a new milestone: enacting a statewide paid family and medical leave program.
Starting Jan. 1, workers and some businesses will begin contributing to a statewide insurance pool to fund a comprehensive paid family and medical leave program, with workers eligible to receive benefits the following year on Jan. 1, 2020.
The program guarantees up to 16 weeks of combined paid family and medical leave, ensuring workers can bond with a new child, care for a sick family member or recover from their own illness. And for all these benefits, the average worker will contribute just over $2 per week from their paycheck, roughly the price of a cup of coffee.
This program couldn’t come soon enough for Washington families. I know because I understand first-hand what it’s like to not have paid leave.
When I found out I was pregnant, my husband and I were both working at a pizza company that didn’t offer paid leave. We relied on both of our incomes to put food on the table, and although we tried to save in advance, we couldn’t plan for the early contractions I had continuously for three weeks before our baby was born. It was so painful that I could only work for two to three hours at a time until I hit my physical limit. Despite all our planning, we couldn’t account for the whole month of income that vanished before our eyes.
Then once I was ready to deliver, I had to have a C-section, which required at least six weeks of recovery. Meanwhile, my husband had no choice but to go back to work within a week. Our savings were running low and without paid leave, we struggled to make ends meet.
Research shows that when fathers take paternity leave, it results in better outcomes for their children, including improved health and higher cognitive test scores. But the absence of paid leave meant my husband sacrificed crucial time to bond with our son so we could keep dinner on the table, time that we will never get back.
Unfortunately, my story has been the norm for many families and parents across the country, and in Washington state. In fact, 1 in 4 new mothers return to work within 10 days of giving birth because of the lack of paid, job-protected family and medical leave, while 1 in 5 retirees leave the workforce earlier than planned to take care of a loved one.
It is long past time for the U.S. to join the rest of the industrialized world in guaranteeing paid family and medical leave. But while we continue to advocate for a federal program, Washington state has taken a stand for working families, becoming the fifth state to pass a paid family and medical leave program into law in 2017.
My husband missed out on critical time with our son because paid leave wasn’t an option, but soon Washington families won’t be forced to make that choice. Everyone deserves the time they need to bond with their children and take care of their loved ones when they’re sick. Washington’s paid family and medical leave program will ensure that all workers and their families have that opportunity.
This new year, let’s toast to that.
Christina Pedersen is a Marysville resident, mother and member of MomsRising.