Democrats keep trying for family leave funds

Republicans say the fragile economy and state budget can’t handle the expense of time off for new parents

msantos@theolympian.comFebruary 28, 2013 

Funding paid maternity and paternity leave for new parents may be a dead issue in the Republican-leaning state Senate, but that hasn’t stopped the House from advancing Democrats’ plan to implement the program.

A House fiscal committee heard a bill Wednesday that would use a payroll tax to fund up to 12 weeks of paid leave for workers with new babies or who have a family health crisis.

An identical proposal died in the Senate Commerce & Labor committee last week, with that committee instead choosing to advance a bill that would eliminate the family medical leave program entirely.

The Legislature signed off on the family medical leave program in 2007, but delayed implementing it because there hasn’t been funding.

Proponents of getting the program up and running told the House Finance Committee on Wednesday that it would benefit middle- and low-income families who can’t afford to take unpaid time off work to care for their newborns or a sick family member.

Under the House proposal, weekly benefit payments would amount to 65 percent of a worker’s normal weekly pay, up to $1,000 per week. The legislation is sponsored by Tami Green, a Democrat from Lakewood.

“This program is an investment in our children and families,” said Marilyn Watkins of the Family Work and Family Coalition.

“Because everyone is in the pool, the insurance cost is very low,” added Watkins, who estimated that the average worker would pay $2 a week for the program once it is fully implemented in 2016.

But business groups and the minority House Republicans say neither the state nor employers can afford a tax on payroll to fund the program. The tax would start at 0.2 percent of wages in 2014 and rise to 0.4 percent starting in 2016. Employers could deduct half of the premium from employees’ pay.

“We would submit to you that our state economy simply can’t handle this,” said Kris Tefft, lobbyist for the Association of Washington Business.

Employer- and employee-paid premiums would generate $1.2 billion between 2015 and 2017, a report from the state Office of Financial Management said.

Even if the expansion of family medical leave is approved by the Democrat-controlled House, leaders in the Senate — which is led by a coalition of 23 Republicans and two Democrats — oppose the bill moving forward, said Sen. Tim Sheldon, one of the Democrats who joined Republicans to form the Majority Coalition Caucus.

“It would be very doubtful that that bill would pass the Senate, given the economic situation we’re in,” Sheldon said.

The ideological differences between the two chambers of the Legislature extend also to sick leave policies. A surviving House proposal would require most employers to provide employees with 40-72 hours per year of paid sick leave, while two bills that have been sent to the Senate floor aim to shut down a local sick leave mandate passed by the City of Seattle.

Republican Rep. Ed Orcutt of Kalama said he thinks that when it comes to setting policies for sick leave and family medical leave, the Legislature is meddling where it doesn’t belong.

“At what point do we allow employers to offer their benefit packages, and compete with other businesses for employees?” said Orcutt, who serves on the House Finance Committee. “At what point do we allow employers and labor to negotiate the terms of their employee-employer relationship?

“I don’t think we need to legislate every thing.”

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209 msantos@theolympian.com

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