After a decade of stalling, Washington lawmakers are ready to make their state the leader in paid family leave policy.
State Democrats last week introduced a paid family leave bill that would be by far the most generous and progressive proposal in the country — if passed.
The proposal calls for six months of paid family leave for all employees in the state to care for a new child, sick family member, or a family member in the military, and 12 weeks of paid leave to recover from one’s own serious illness. So far, the four existing state family leave programs don’t go past 12 weeks, and two of them only guarantee six weeks.
Washington’s legislation would also guarantee far more pay for those who take time off. The bill uses a complex formula to calculate pay: it guarantees 90 percent of a worker’s pay up to half of the state’s average weekly wage — that half figure is currently $541, and the average weekly wage is $1082. Then it would add half of everything the worker makes above that level, and cap the total payout at $1,000 a week. The $1,000 cap will be adjusted each year to increase with average weekly wages.
By contrast, leave benefits are capped at $607 a week in New Jersey, $770 in Rhode Island, and about $870 in New York.
All of this would be funded by a quarter of a percent payroll tax on employees and a quarter of a percent tax on employers.
It’s yet to be seen what sort of headway the bill will make in the state legislature, which is effectively under split control, with Democrats controlling the House and Republicans in control of the Senate. But Marilyn Watkins, policy director of the Economic Opportunity Institute and an advocate who has long been involved in pushing for paid leave in the state, noted that just days after the Democrats’ bill was introduced, a second one sponsored mostly by Republicans was introduced that would provide mostly universal family leave.
“This is an issue that has some real legs this year,” she said.
This type of legislation has faced a decade of stalls and delays in the state. In 2007, the Washington legislature passed a whittled-down bill that only guaranteed parental leave and contained no mechanism to fund benefits. When the economy collapsed in 2009, any plans to fund it were thrown out the window.
When advocates got together last year to craft this version, they decided to start from scratch. “We all decided we wanted to ask for the policy we thought people wanted and needed,” said Watkins. “We did go back to the drawing board… and think about, ‘Let’s start with what our families really need.’”
Six months may sound like a large amount of time off, particularly given that federal law guarantees just 12 weeks of unpaid leave. But it’s grounded in research about the typical amount of time post-partum parents need to adjust to a new baby.
Paul Chung, a pediatric doctor at UCLA who’s been reviewing the existing research with Priya Batra at UC Riverside and Adam Schickedanz at UCLA, notes that six months of leave fits squarely with what science supports. “If we had to pick a number out of thin air based on what the medical research is telling us, we probably would have picked somewhere in the four- to six-month range,” he said.
Childbirth is a huge medical event. “In pregnancy, basically all of your body systems are affected, it’s a pretty traumatic effect for a woman,” Chung said. “Moms really don’t start to report feeling a lot better until that 12- to 16-week mark.” Major organ systems undergo transformations during pregnancy, and they take a while to recover. For example, the cardio-vascular system doesn’t go back to pre-pregnancy function until about three months after birth. “Once you get to six months, you start to reap the full benefits of recovery,” he said.
Mothers’ mental health follows a similar pattern. Postpartum depression tends to peak after about two to six months, and mental health generally begins to stabilize around three to four months.
Then there’s the benefits for children. “Six months is perfect,” Chung said. The benefits of breastfeeding, for those mothers who are able, are most important in the first six months. Most vaccines have to be done in the first six months. And while there is less concrete evidence on the right amount of time for child/parent bonding, there are signs that the first six months is an important period.
There’s less research being done on fathers, but Chung notes that they can also experience postpartum depression, and that there seem to be benefits of father/child bonding. Some research has found that a father who takes time off after the birth of his child ends up more involved in his child’s direct care nine months later and will be a more competent and committed father later on. Studies in other countries have also found that when men are required to take paid leave, women are able to work and earn more.
Giving people just six to 12 weeks of leave, on the other hand, is not adequate time to reap many of these rewards. “Those durations probably don’t get you to the point where we would really start to be optimizing both maternal and child health,” Chung said.
Watkins and the other advocates also want to call into question why 12 weeks appears to be a ceiling, not a floor, for leave duration, particularly since the Family and Medical Leave Act, which guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave, was crafted and passed in the 1980s and 90s. “That’s the wrong starting point,” she said. “The right starting point is: what do people really need.”