Once again Washington is in the forefront of states with new laws to help workers and families.
The latest step is a paid family- and medical-leave law that passed in the Legislature last month with support from major business and family advocacy groups. Gov. Jay Inslee signed the bill into law Wednesday, but benefits do not begin until 2019.
Senate Bill 5975 makes Washington the fifth state — after California, New Jersey, Rhode Island and New York — with a guaranteed paid leave law.
And it comes on the heels of last fall’s voter approval of Initiative 1433, which raised our state’s minimum wage to $11 an hour in January and created a sick pay requirement for certain employers. Together these new labor standards are partly an adjustment to economic realities, but they in turn also require adjustments by employers and the regional economy.
Guaranteed paid leave means that mothers and fathers can receive some replacement pay when they take time off work during the early months of their infant’s life. The law also ensures that workers receive replacement pay while taking time off to recover from their own illnesses or to take care of close family members.
Under SB 5975 workers pay all of the family-leave insurance premiums and just under half of the medical-leave premiums — both through payroll taxes that begin in January 2019. Employees must work at least 820 hours to qualify, and businesses with fewer than 50 employees are exempted from paying the employer share of the medical leave premium.
Most benefits are calculated as a percentage of actual pay, and capped initially at $1,000 per week, although low-wage workers qualify for a 90 percent match because their earnings would be too low to live on. Benefits can last 12 weeks for either family or medical leave, or 16 weeks total if both are used.
The legislation fulfills the promise of a 2007 leave law that never was implemented. The effort this time was bipartisan and led by Sen. Joe Fain, R-Kent, and Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent. They drew support from family-advocacy groups like Mom’s Rising, labor unions and business groups. Among them were the Association of Washington Business, Washington Hospitality Association, Washington Retail Association, the Northwest Grocery Association, and several chambers of commerce.
An important piece of the bill is a preemption against local governments requiring a higher benefit than the state standard, which is not the case with wages.
Washington’s minimum wage now ties Massachusetts for the highest rate among the 50 states.
South Sound lawmakers were split on the leave law. These labor standards help raise the quality of life for families, but also the cost of doing business in our state. Our hope is that any negative impacts on employment are muted by the phase in over several years.
It is important that the health, education and well-being of children and families are at the top of society’s priorities.