Opinion: As a Mom and a Public Health Professional, I’m Celebrating Washington’s New Paid Leave Program 

by Zandrea Harlin

When I discovered I was pregnant about three years ago, my husband and I were thrilled. Almost immediately, we focused on figuring out what sort of parental leave we would be able to take. We were both working full-time, and we needed both incomes to cover our expenses.

I’m a huge policy nerd and I had studied this issue for years. I believed I understood the strengths and weaknesses of the paid leave policies in place at the time. Through my research and activism, I had much more knowledge than most as I tried to determine how long I’d be able to bond with my baby and recover from birth before returning to work.

But, I must confess, I was still confused. Between the federal policies and the policies of our  employers, we were navigating a complicated set of options. While we were privileged to have vacation time and short-term disability, it was stressful to determine what paid leave we could access during the first weeks after our baby’s birth.

In the end, we were lucky. We were able to negotiate with our employers and both my husband and I got the paid leave we needed. That time meant so much to our family. It allowed us to find the childcare we needed. I was able to breastfeed for 15 months. We learned about differences in parenting styles and, today our daughter has unique, individual relationships with each of us. And because so much of our leave was paid, bonding with our daughter didn’t cost us our financial security.

I can’t imagine how we would have coped without adequate paid leave – or what we would do in the future if one of us couldn’t take the time we needed to care for ourselves or a loved one with a serious medical condition. Unfortunately, too many families in the United States don’t have to imagine.

Only a small percentage of working people in this country have access to any paid family or medical leave through their employers. That means a pregnancy, an illness, or a sick loved one can result in a lost paycheck, or even a lost job. In the United States, one out of every four people who give birth go back to work within two weeks.

It doesn’t need to be this way. That’s why I’m so thrilled that in Washington, we are taking a huge step forward, and working people won’t have to navigate the complicated patchwork of policies that my husband and I faced.

Washingtonians now have access to one of the most robust paid family and medical leave programs in the country. As of January 2, 2020, most working people in the state now qualify for up to 16 weeks of combined paid family and medical leave each year to bond with a new child, take care of a seriously ill family member, or recover from their own serious medical condition. Nearly all workers who have accrued at least 820 hours in the previous year are eligible for paid leave, and the program’s progressive wage replacement will make it possible for low-income workers to take this leave. This historic policy is a huge win for Washington’s families, employers, communities and economy.

Families who plan to apply in these first few months should plan for potential delay in receiving benefits. ESD has received a much higher number of applications than expected in the first month of 2020, largely from parents who welcomed children in 2019 and are electing to use the leave now that it is available. ESD is warning that, during this initial surge, it could take up to four or more weeks to review and approve applications.

Even with the growing pains this program is a huge win for public health. When I was studying for my master’s in public health, I focused on the importance of a child’s first three years. Specifically, I learned that a major body of research demonstrated that supporting people who get pregnant could improve the health of their children later in life. Scientific research suggests that a pregnant person’s stress levels can actually shape both physical and mental health outcomes for their child into adulthood.

In other words, paid leave has the potential to shape parents’ and children’s health for years to come. I hope Washington’s new program will serve as a model for a federal policy – because everyone deserves to be with family in times of joy and hardship, regardless of your employer, your income level, or the state you call home.

Zandrea Harlin is a mom, a public health professional, and a member of MomsRising. She lives in Seattle.