Lawmakers in Washington State have been procrastinating for nearly a decade on the state’s family leave bill. Joining California in 2007, Washington became the second state to pass a paid family leave law that would provide parents with $250 in weekly benefits for up to five weeks in the event of childbirth or adoption. Implementation of the law was projected to occur in October 2009, but was postponed until October 2012 and then again until October 2015 due to budgetary constraints. This past legislative session, the law was yet again stymied with House Bill 2044, which was signed into law this month and says that benefits will only become available once the legislature appropriates specific funding and sets a new implementation date. So for now, paid family leave is a long way off for Washington State citizens.
Since 2007, the importance of paid family leave has only become clearer. Without it, workers are left with the Family and Medical Leave Act’s (FMLA) national standard: 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave. But statistics show that unpaid leave hurts workers. Fifty-four percent of workers earning less than the median family income reported losing all income while on leave, according to the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP). Moreover, CLASP reports that 3.3 million workers did not take leave despite their need because they could not afford it.
Opposition to paid leave policies has often come from the business community, yet there is increasing evidence that paid leave has no negative effect on business operations. Because California was the first state to implement a paid leave policy in 2004, there is a large amount of data available to researchers to investigate how paid leave has affected workers and employers. In California, nine out of ten employers have experienced either positive or neutral effects from the state’s paid leave program, and contrary to popular belief, evidence shows that small businesses were less likely to report negative effects than larger ones. For workers, a 2009–2010 Employee Survey showed that 82.3 percent of respondents believed that paid leave helped them better care for new children or ill family members.
However, unlike the Washington program that was devised in 2007, California, New Jersey (which implemented paid family leave in 2009) and Rhode Island (which passed paid family leave in 2013) use a different financing model, which may contribute to why Washington has had so much trouble funding a paid leave program. These three states run their programs through pre-established disability insurance programs. The paid family leave is financed through a payroll tax, so there are no direct costs to employers. Washington’s approach, a flat rate of $250 per week, requires a large amount of government funding, not to mention that Washington has no existing temporary disability insurance program to build on. A payroll tax may be a good solution to their funding woes.
In fact, the Center for American Progress has proposed a nationwide program for workers to pay into paid family leave with a payroll tax called Social Security Cares. As California and New Jersey have shown, the benefits of providing workplace flexibility to employees in their time of need outweigh potential costs to business. It’s time for the Washington State Legislature to get serious about this reality.