In a radical turn of events, state legislators managed to get something done late last week. Not only did they pass a budget* to avert a government shutdown, they also reached a deal to provide all
private sector workers in Washington with paid family leave. Governor Jay Inslee is expected to sign the bill into law today at 2:30 pm.
The proposal, a long-negotiated compromise between Republicans and Democrats, will give nearly all workers in Washington state access to 12 weeks of paid time off for a new birth or adoption beginning in 2020. Other options: Workers can also get up to 12 weeks off to care for a sick family member or 16 total weeks of both types of leave.
The leave will operate similar to insurance, with both employers and employees paying into the system. The total tax will amount to .4 percent of wages, with employers paying about 63 percent and employees paying about 37 percent. The Associated Press reports, for a worker making $50,000 a year, this would mean: The employee pays $2.42 a week, the employer pays $1.42 a week, and the benefit would total $703 a week. Companies with 50 or fewer employees are exempt (CLARIFICATION: but their workers will pay in and can receive the benefit). Companies that already offer equivalent benefits can opt out. Tribes and the self-employed can opt in. Pay-ins start in 2019 and benefits start in 2020.
The wage replacement in the plan is progressive, which means lower wage workers receive more than higher earners while they're on leave. Low-wage workers who take leave will receive 90 percent of what they would normally make on the job. (The weeds: The wage replacement is calculated based on the statewide average weekly wage, which is $1,082. If a worker makes half of that or less—about $541 a week or $28,000 a year—they get 90 percent of their wages covered. If a worker makes more than that, they have their wages replaced at 90 percent but only at 50 percent beyond the $541 a week and only up to a maximum of $1,000 per week.) A few examples from the Economic Opportunity Institute, which has been working on this policy for years: A worker making $28,000 a year would get 90 percent of their weekly wage replaced while on leave. Someone making $54,000 would have about 71 percent of their wages replaced, and someone making $83,000 a year would have about 63 percent replaced.
(^ we wish)
All of this is obviously a big deal. The plan is winning praise all over the place, including both sides of the political aisle. (Among the bill's co-sponsors: Kent's Karen Keiser, Seattle's Rebecca Saldaña, and Joe Fain, the rare Republican who is not a total asshole.)
Yet it provides less than half of what Seattle City Council member Lorena González proposed giving workers in the city. Citing the medical and equity benefits of paid family leave, González proposed requiring businesses to offer their workers 26 weeks of paid family leave and 12 weeks of paid time off for serious personal injury. Could Seattle now go even further than the state plan?
The short answer: Probably not.
The new state law includes a provision banning any city or county from creating a paid family leave insurance plan that "alters or amends the requirements" of the new state law for any business.
González has praised the new state law, but, in an interview, wasn't quite ready to call off her efforts. She said her office would be "analyzing" the bill language to see if the city will have any power to strengthen the state law, but wouldn't specify anything more than that.
Marilyn Watkins, the policy director from the progressive Economic Opportunity Institute who helped negotiate the deal, says labor advocates didn't want that preemption language, but it was a compromise with business interests. Ultimately, she argues, a statewide program is better than a Seattle-only program, even if it results in fewer weeks of leave.
Not only does a statewide program mean more workers benefit, but is easier to implement because the state already collects other types of payroll taxes. More people paying into the system means more money available for leave and lower per-person costs to operate the system, Watkins says. It also means that if someone works in Seattle and pays into the program for several years, but then moves to another city in Washington before becoming a parent, they can still get their benefits.
"To move something this big and this important," Watkins says, "it seemed like in this specific case—not in every case—it was worth having a limited kind of preemption language if that was the price."
*There's a lot of shit in that budget, which the Olympia press corps wrote all about: education funding lawmakers argue will finally meet the requirements of the McCleary decision, mental health funding, major tax cuts for manufacturing businesses, and a lot more.
This post has been updated. The policy will benefit all workers in Washington, not only private sector workers.