Paid family and medical leave signed, sealed and delivered

Sen. Joe Fain points to bill as the top step of session.

The McCleary wrestling match gobbled up most of the air space this session in Olympia. On the edges of the education funding scuffle, the Legislature passed the Family and Medical Leave Insurance Program, which Sen. Joe Fain said was a bright light of the session for him.

Fain, a Republican from Auburn representing the 47th District was the prime sponsor of the bill. Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, also sponsored the bill and the two helped guide it through the legislative backrooms and byways with its final destination on Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk.

Fain said the law places the state as one of five in the nation that provides paid family and medical leave to workers.

He said 25 percent of mothers with newborns take less than two weeks off before returning to work, and fewer than “one in 20 have access to any paid leave and it is worse for dads.”

A family leave act was passed by the state in 2007, but was unfunded.

Fain said the equation that brought the bill to the floors of the two chambers was bringing business, labor and both sides of the political aisle around a coffee table to talk it out.

“We met for months,” Fain said. “We were able to meet the needs of the business community and labor.”

He said the heart of the bill and the reason for its success was it protects both employers and families.

In a release from Keiser, the senator said an Auburn woman testified 10 years ago when the first family leave act was passed in Olympia. “She told us that she was saving up every hour of paid time off that she could so she could spend those precious moments with her newborn. Then her baby was born prematurely. She had given birth on Thursday, but due to circumstance and because she wanted to use what time off she had at home with her son, she went back to work on Monday. Can you imagine? Your child still in the intensive care unit, while you’re still at work? I never forgot that story.”

The bill received considerable bipartisan support, but not all were sure the program will work well for the business community in the state.

Rep. Mark Hargrove, R-Covington, commented in an email, “I completely understand the desirability of employees not having to choose between earning an income and caring for newborn children or other loved ones. I applaud businesses who are able to offer paid family leave to their employees. However, many businesses have operating margins that are so tight, they cannot offer this benefit. A benefit of up to $1,000 per week for 18 weeks is costly. Therefore, I am concerned that the newly passed legislation requiring paid family leave will burden many businesses to the point where they can no longer survive in Washington state. They will be forced to close or move to one of the other 45 states without such a mandate. Ultimately, employees of those companies will no longer have any choice.”

Fain said the new bill gives 12 weeks off, paid, for family or medical leave from a personal injury not related to work. A maximum of 16 weeks are allowed per year for full-time employees. Women who have complications during birth will be allowed an additional two weeks for recovery.

Workers would receive 90 percent of their weekly wage if their weekly wage is 50 percent or less than the state average weekly wage. If the worker’s wage is above 50 percent, the amount is 90 percent of the individual’s average weekly salary up to 50 percent of the state average weekly wage. The maximum is $1,000 per week.

Fain said what brought the sides together is how the program is funded. Both employer and employees pay for the insurance. Employers pay 55 percent of the medical portion, about 37 percent of the overall plan. Employee paid premiums pay all of the family leave portion, about 63 percent of total plan.

For a minimum wage employee the cost would be about 3 cents per hour and 2 cents per hour for the business.

Businesses with less than 50 employees will be exempt from paying for the program.

The plan follows employees who change jobs within the state.

The program begins in 2020.

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