Family leave provokes fight in state Senate
by John Stang
The Barfield family Credit: John Stang
A double whammy hit Democrats Monday on the Family Medical Leave Act and on workers compensation.
At least Democrats say so.
At the beginning of a Monday session, the Republican chairwoman of the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee moved a public hearing on a controversial bill to repeal the Family Medical Leave Act from the beginning of the agenda to the end. That provided time in the two-hour session for the chairwoman to move five of her complicated workers compensation bills out of the committee, leaving 25 minutes for public feedback on the family leave bill.
Consequently, not all the people who signed up to testify on the family leave bill got to do so.
Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, contended that committee chairwoman Sen. Janea Holmquist Newbry juggled the agenda at the last minute to ensure minimal testimony on the family leave bill, while giving Republicans time to move the five workers compensation bills out of the committee over Democrat protests. Holmquist Newbry could not be reached for comment after the committee meeting to reply to Keiser's comments.
Three 2013 Family Medical Leave Act bills are in play.
Keiser got the original act passed in 2007, which would provide parents of newborn and newly adopted children with up to five weeks of paid leave starting in 2015. Implementation was delayed because of a lack of money to manage the program — $12 to $13 million to start up and $5 million annually, Keiser said. The leaves of absence themselves would be funded through a tiny payroll deduction, she said.
However, Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, submitted a bill to repeal the 2007 act. "It's an act of good intentions. … But it's never been properly funded," Braun said.
Last week, Keiser introduced a new bill aimed at expanding the Family Medical Leave Act to provide for up to 12 weeks of leave to care for a newborn or newly adopted child or a sick family member. It would also provide two-thirds of usual weekly pay up to a maximum of $1,000 a week. The premiums would be shared by employers and employees and would cost, according to her calculations, roughly $1 a week for an employee salaried at $50,000 annually. Workers would become eligible after paying premiums for 680 hours of work. Keiser's bill will go to Holmquist Newbry's committee.
Meanwhile, House Democrats introduced a bill similar Keiser in their chamber Monday.
Braun's bill brought Mark and Trudee Barfield of Orting to Olympia with their 2-year-old daughter Hope, who has Down's syndrome.
Mark Barfield — 42 years old and the father of eight children with another on the way — told the committee about Hope having to spend several months at Seattle's Children's Hospital for heart surgery and other problems. His employer, whom he declined to name, gave him 12 weeks off with no pay. The utility and maintenance worker said the family was lucky in that his mother helped financially and Trudee's mother looked after the other kids while the parents were at Children's Hospital.
"If the (funded Family Medical Leave Act) had been there for us, it would've been a great stress reliever," Mark Barfield said.
Trudee Barfield, 39, said parents need to be at the hospital 24 hours a day in this type of situation to ensure their child gets the best care.
Sarah Francis, a blogger with MomsRising, a network dealing with parenting issues, opposed Braun's bill saying: "New moms and dads should be allowed time off to bond with their babies."
One America, which works on immigrant issues, the Washington State Labor Council and the United Food and Commercial Workers union also opposed Braun's bill, arguing the lack of baby care leave is stressful on lower-income people.
The Association of Washington Business, the Independent Business Association and the Washington Policy Center supported Braun's bill to remove the 2007 law. The AWB's Kris Tefft said the Legislature continually delayed finding money for put the bill's programs into play. "All these delays are a de facto repeal," Tefft said. Gary Smith, executive director of the Independent Business Association, said employers fret about the unknown costs of the program.
Meanwhile, Monday's committee session was dominated by debate on five complex Holmquist Newbry workers compensation reform bills. Originally, those bills were at the end of the Monday session's agenda before Holmquist Newbry moved the Family Medical Leave Act bill to the end. All five bills left the committee for a future full Senate vote by five identical 4-3 votes along party lines.
The ranking Democrat on the Labor and Commerce Committee, Sen. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma, fumed at what he contended was Holmquist Newbry pushing those bills through too fast before the committee members could digest them. The committee held a hearing on the bills last Wednesday. Democrats say one bill would override a state court ruling that said the worker's compensation system's chief mission is to protect injured workers.
Holmquist Newbry and the other Republican committee members spoke little in public about the five bills, while Democrats griped a lot. She said these bills had been around in past legislative sessions, but the then-majority Democrat never gave them hearings. Consequently, she said legislators should already be familiar with the issues addressed by the bills.