Editorial: State needs a paid family leave law that actually pays

By The Herald Editorial Board

For a decade Washington state has had a paid family leave law — but in name only.

It technically allows workers to take up to five weeks off for the birth or adoption of a child and was supposed to provide a weekly benefit of $250. But in passing the law, which would have taken effect in 2009, legislators never identified where the money for that modest benefit was to come from.

Under state and federal law, employees can take up to 12 weeks of leave to care for family and themselves over a 12-month period, but the time away from work goes unpaid. Four states — California, New Jersey, Rhode Island and New York — offer paid family leave. Nineteen other states, including Washington state, are considering legislation to offer it.

There’s growing public support for paid family leave. An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll last May found that 72 percent of Americans supported paid family leave. Support was strongest among Democrats, but was also significant among Republicans. Support also was stronger among those ages 40 to 64, typically referred to as the “Sandwich Generation,” those who often must provide care for children and for aging parents.

Last fall voters passed I-1433, which along with a minimum wage increase, also requires employers to offer paid sick leave equal to a worker’s salary. But the sick leave benefit is intended for shorter-term absences from the job. Sick leave is earned at a rate of one hour for every 40 hours worked, meaning it takes eight weeks to earn a day of sick time.

After annual efforts to pass paid family leave legislation that actually pays, Republicans this year have joined the conversation, offering legislation that would provide the benefit, though it differs in some provisions that Democrats have sought in recent years.

Senate Bill 5149, sponsored by Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, would provide up to eight weeks of paid family leave for a child’s birth or adoption, a family member’s or the worker’s own serious illness or a family member’s military duty. The benefit would increase to up to 12 weeks of leave as of 2023.

The act would provide up to 50 percent of an employee’s salary but cap the benefit at 50 percent of the state average weekly wage, $1,082 a week in 2015. As of 2023, the benefit would increase to 67 percent of a worker’s salary, with a cap of 67 percent of the state average weekly wage.

Premiums, to be set by the state Employment Security Department, would be paid exclusively by employees, deducted from their paychecks.

House Bill 1116, sponsored by Rep. June Robinson, D-Everett, and a similar bill in the Senate, SB 5032, would provide leave under the same circumstances but extend its length to 26 weeks beginning in October 2019; would provide 12 weeks of leave for an individual’s own serious illness; would be based on a percentage of a worker’s salary but capped at $1,000; and would require employers to pay the benefit’s premium at 0.255 percent of the worker’s wage as of July 1, 2018 and 0.51 percent as of 2020. Employers could deduct up to half of the premium’s cost from an employee’s pay.

While the bills differ in the length and amount of benefit and in how they are funded, they offer a starting point for compromise. But lawmakers should look for a way for employer and employee to share in the responsibility, as Robinson’s bill outlines.

The benefits of paid family leave for employees are easy to understand; employees are freed from the financial burden of lost wages when they give birth or adopt a child, when they need to care for an ill or elderly family member, when they, themselves, are seriously ill for an extended period or when a spouse is called to military service and are left as the sole parent or family caregiver.

The advantage to employers may be difficult to put hard numbers to, but allowing paid time away for employees means a greater likelihood that employees who need to take time off can return to the business and continue to provide the skills they have developed there. Certainly, retention of workers is good for the local and national economy as well.

We have gone a decade in Washington state with a paid family leave law that offers no pay. Lawmakers can find consensus among the bills being discussed and make the lives of state residents a little easier during the birth of a child, a serious family illness or a spouse’s service to the country.

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