U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez visited Molly Moons in April to highlight the companys paid parental leave policy. Now, hes giving Washington a grant to design a statewide parental leave program.
U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez visited Molly Moon's in April to highlight the company's paid parental leave policy. Now he's giving Washington a grant to design a statewide parental leave program. City of Seattle

Washington Governor Jay Inslee's office announced today that the state will get a $247,000 grant to design a paid parental leave program for all workers in the state. This money is a first step toward resurrecting a program the state legislature approved in 2007 but never found a way to fund.

The grant won't actually create paid leave in the state, but will fund a cost-benefit analysis of possible types of paid leave programs to serve all workers in the state (not just public employees) and "research voters’ preferences and views on paid family leave," according to Inslee's office.

Just three states in the country have family leave insurance policies, which are funded by payroll taxes paid by employees. That creates paid parental leave that's accessible to all private-sector employees, rather than just those who work at companies that choose to offer paid leave.

Washington's law would have guaranteed parents $250 a week for up to five weeks, costing a total of about $20 million to $30 million a year, but did not include a funding source. Once the law passed, the legislature could never actually decide on how to fund the program and a year later then-Governor Christine Gregoire suspended work on paid leave. Since then, some in the state legislature have proposed repealing it. (The Seattle Times editorial board was on that side of the issue in 2013. Ugh.)

Because of the program's early demise, it's unclear whether Washington would now fund the entirety of parental leave benefit with state dollars or, more likely, create a program like other states have in which employees share part of the burden. That's part of what this grant is meant to help Washington figure out.

U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who announced the grants for family and medical leave today, has made paid leave a focus of the Department of Labor. In April, Perez visited Seattle and stopped for a photo op at Molly Moon's Ice Cream, which offers employees 12 weeks of paid family leave. He also spoke at a roundtable discussion at Seattle Central with pro-paid-leave business owners, Council Member Jean Godden, and others.

Paid leave supporters say the policy—common in the rest of the developed world—provides new parents with stable income while caring for newborns, makes women more likely to return to the workforce after having, adopting, or fostering children, and improves life for the kids who bond with their parents during their first weeks of life. Opponents argue against another burden on business. But early research shows business may not be hurt by paid leave requirements.

"At California companies, many of which lobbied against the law, fears about its effects have not played out," wrote Claire Cain Miller in the New York Times earlier this year. California's law took effect in 2004. There, private sector employees pay into the system and can get six weeks of family leave at up to $1,100 a week, depending on their salary. "From 89 percent to 99 percent of employers say it has had no effect or a positive one on productivity, profitability, turnover and morale, according to a report by [Ruth] Milkman and Eileen Appelbaum, an economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Eighty-seven percent say it has not increased costs. Nine percent say they saved money, because of decreased turnover or benefit payments."

Inslee says in a press release today that "paid family leave is one of the most important things we can do for working families... Workers often face no-win decisions about returning to work and sacrificing time to care for and bond with a new infant or provide medical care for an ill or aging partner or parent."

U.S. Senator Patty Murray, who's currently pushing a federal paid sick time law, also praised the announcement.

"I am proud that Washington state is leading the way in working to expand access to paid leave programs," Murray says, "and I’m going to keep fighting in Washington, D.C. to move forward with pro-family policies that would reward, not punish family members for taking care of themselves and loved ones.”