Washington stumbles toward landmark paid family leave

One of only a handful of states to enact such a program, it remains to be seen if the state can actually fund it. A 2009 ballot measure might be necessary to impose a payroll tax to cover the cost.
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One of only a handful of states to enact such a program, it remains to be seen if the state can actually fund it. A 2009 ballot measure might be necessary to impose a payroll tax to cover the cost.

It's a glass-half-full or half-empty kind of a story: A year ago, Washington became only the second state in the nation to legislate paid family leave. This year, legislators failed to provide the program with a permanent funding source, but their budget did give it an administrative home and start-up funding of $6.2 million. Now it's likely New Jersey will pass Washington by, becoming the second state (after California) to implement paid family leave — and a more generous program than Washington's at that.

Under the budget passed by the Legislature and expected to be signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire within days, the Employment Security Department is to take on the program. The start-up money will go toward setting up computer systems, creating application forms, and hiring staff for the program.

If the Washington program starts as planned in October 2009, it will provide parents of newborn and newly adopted children $250 per week for up to five weeks, pro-rated for part-time workers. While most other nations in the world, including Canada and every European country, provide nationally mandated paid parental leave, the U.S. provides only unpaid leave to parents who work for large employers. Only 18 percent of workers are able to take this leave, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families, largely because it is unpaid.

Washington supporters of paid family leave point to the current uncertain economic climate and the passage of Initiative 960 as major hurdles facing the program. The initiative, Tim Eyman's latest, appears to require any new tax or fee to be passed by a two-thirds majority in each chamber of the Legislature and be put to voters. Family leave funding wouldn't go before voters until November 2009, too late to make a October 2009 start-up deadline. However, Marilyn Watkins of the Economic Opportunity Institute, one of the program's main backers, says she is hopeful that won't be necessary. "We may have a two-stage solution," she says, in which short-term funding gets the program running on time, but permanent funding comes later.

Washington's paid family leave bill, which originally would have covered time off for one's own illness as well as time to care for a sick family member, was stripped down before passage, in part because of opposition from the business lobby, including the Association of Washington Business and the Independent Business Association. Austin Jenkins, writing here at Crosscut, reported that Republican legislators named the family leave bill one of the top two worst bills of the year.

Narrowing the bill complicated the effort to secure permanent funding. Originally, the program was to be funded by a flat payroll tax on workers, but the stripped-down program no longer offers a benefit to all workers, so it's a harder sell. Rick Bender, president of the Washington State Labor Council and a backer of paid family leave, has been quoted saying that if the program is put before voters, it should be expanded to include time off to care for one's own illness or that of a family member. Bender has said polling indicates that only a broader-based program has enough support to pass.

Watkins expressed surprise and frustration at the changes in the bill. "They stripped out that component where we have the most U.S. experience and kept in the component where we have the least U.S. experience," she said.

Watkins noted that paid family leave faces a special difficulty in Washington. While many states, including California, have had temporary disability insurance programs in place for decades, Washington does not. These states have successful models for how to run paid leave programs, she said, that Washington lacks.

In March, New Jersey's state Senate passed a bill providing workers six weeks off to care for a new child or ill family member, paid for by a payroll deduction estimated at about $33 per year. Workers would get two-thirds of their salary up to $524 a week. The bill is expected to pass the assembly and be signed into law by Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine soon.

California's program is even more generous, paying 55 percent of a worker's pay for six weeks, up to $882 a week. Workers can use the leave to take care of their own illness or of a sick family member, as well as to care for a new child.

Supporters of paid family leave cite evidence suggesting that it has a positive effect on children's health. According to Mom's Rising, paid family leave reduces infant mortality by as much as 20 percent. The Progressive States Network reports that when parents can stay home with newborns, they are more likely to receive regular medical checkups, get immunizations, and be breastfed.


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