Family Leave Can Be a Matter of Life and Death

by Marilyn Watkins

For Edie, it was a serious infection that landed both her and her five-week-old baby back in the hospital. For Rhonda, it was a surgery that should have kept her off her feet for six weeks. For Gabriela, it was the frantic search for a diagnosis as her father got sicker and sicker and ultimately died of cancer.

Most of us at some point need to take several weeks or months away from our job – for a new child’s arrival, a serious accident, or the end a loved one’s life. But very few employers provide enough paid leave for such situations.

So Edie dragged herself back to work before either she or her tiny daughter were fully healed. Rhonda returned to her physically demanding caregiving job four weeks too soon – and still had to turn to her church and a food bank to pay her rent and put food on the table. And Gabriela lost most of her income during that difficult summer caring for her father.

Our state legislature is considering adopting a paid family and medical leave program that would ensure all Washington workers have the time they need to keep themselves and their families healthy and economically secure. In fact, paid family leave polls at such high levels with Washington voters that rival Democratic and Republican versions are on the table.

House Bill 1116, sponsored by Rep. June Robinson (D-Everett), has already passed out of the House Labor and Workplace Standards Committee. Companion Senate Bill 5032 sponsored by Senator Karen Keiser (D-Des Moines) received a hearing in the Senate Commerce, Labor & Sports Committee last week, along with competing SB 5149 sponsored by Joe Fain (R-Auburn).

Workers and small business owners testified in favor of the Robinson/Keiser bills, along with representatives of organizations including MomsRising, YWCA, Washington Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Washington State Labor Council, and veterans groups. The Fain proposal, meanwhile, received tepid support from the Association of Washington Business and several other business lobby groups that have opposed a paid leave policy in the past.

The Washington Work and Family Coalition crafted the policy incorporated in HB 1116 and SB 5032 based on the advice of health professionals, research from other states with similar programs, and input from small business owners and community members. It would provide up to 26 weeks of paid family leave – as doctors recommend for new babies – and up to 12 weeks of disability leave. As with Social Security, benefits would follow the worker from job to job and be adjusted to provide equitable access for people with different income levels. Someone making $500 a week would receive 90% of their usual wages, someone making $1,000 a week would have 72% replaced, and someone making $2,000 would get half. The program would be paid for through payroll premiums split between workers and employers, each paying about $2.00 a week for the typical employee.

The Fain bill is skimpier than any existing state program, allowing a maximum of only 12 weeks leave, even for women forced to be on bedrest for several months during pregnancy or parents of critically ill children. It would have much lower benefits, forcing many low- and moderate-income workers to return to work too soon. And it would be paid for entirely by workers, but be inaccessible to many who work part-time, recently changed jobs, or have non-standard work arrangements.

Four similar programs already operating in other states all provide separate allocations of disability and family leave, with totals of 30 weeks in Rhode Island, 32 weeks in New Jersey, 38 weeks in New York, and 52 weeks in California. In these states both new moms and babies are healthier, fewer new parents rely on public assistance, and women are more likely to hold a job and to earn higher pay a year following childbirth than in the other states.

The research also shows that low benefit levels in some of these states continue to prevent lower income workers from taking full advantage of the leave. The Coalition-backed bills are designed to overcome this barrier and improve equitable outcomes for children and families across income and racial groups.

South Seattle cosponsors of the Coalition bills include Representatives Sharon Tomiko Santos, Zack Hudgins, Steve Bergquist, and Senator Bob Hasegawa.

Even with popular enthusiasm and seeming bipartisan support, passing a strong paid family leave policy will be a tough fight. The Democrat-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate are far apart on our state budget and education funding, and the impacts of federal policy changes are still big unknowns, all adding to the pressures to compromise.

We can ensure every child born in Washington gets a strong foundation for lifetime health and opportunity, support health and well-being across the lifespan, promote racial and gender equity, and help businesses of all types thrive – with the right paid family and medical leave policy.

You can help! HB 1116 was heard in the House Appropriations Committee on February 9. Those committee members will decide whether to pass the bill along to the next stage in the process in the next week or two. Urge them to pass the bill and bring it to the House floor for a vote, by clicking here.

Marilyn Watkins is policy director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, a nonpartisan policy center focused on building and economy that works for everyone.