The nation’s newest — and most generous — Paid Family and Medical Leave Program went into effect this week, ushering in significant change to how Washington workers can care for themselves and their loved ones while bringing home a paycheck.
“What a great way to start 2020,” Gov. Jay Inslee said. “This program is a life-changer for our workers who often feel torn about being there for their families, being there for their jobs and taking care of themselves. I’m proud of Washington’s progress today as we roll out a program that will change lives.”
Nearly everyone working in this state, both part- and full-time, now has access to up to 12 weeks a year to care for themselves or a family member through a serious illness or injury, to bond with a new child coming into the home, and for certain service-connected events for military families. In some circumstances, workers may also request up to 16–18 weeks of paid family and medical leave.
Workers can now file a leave application through the Employment Security Department website, with workers receiving benefits starting Jan. 1, 2020.
Employment Security Department Commissioner, Suzi LeVine said millions of workers can access paid leave when they need it the most — for the first time ever.
“Whether it is caring for a spouse receiving cancer treatment, recovering from surgery, or welcoming a new child into the family, this program will have a profound and positive impact on the state of well-being for the state of Washington,” LeVine said. “A paycheck is essential, but time to care for yourself and your family is irreplaceable. Paid Family and Medical Leave means Washingtonians won’t have to choose between the two, and employers won’t have to lose workers when life happens.”
The Legislature passed the bipartisan bill in 2017 to create the program. Business, labor leaders, and family advocates helped draft and pass the legislation.
Washington is the fifth state to create this program, but the first to do so without the help of other programs. Other states already had existing temporary disability programs in place (the “medical” portion of Washington’s program) to use as the foundation for their paid family leave. Since Washington’s law passed, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Oregon, and the District of Columbia passed similar programs but have not yet launched their benefits.
To be eligible, an employee must work 820 hours, approximately 16 hours per week over the course of about a year, and experience a qualifying event. A small premium funds the program, and workers and many employers now pay into that premium. When a worker goes on leave, they receive partial wage replacement (based on their income), and the benefit can cover up to 90 percent of a worker’s typical wage. (You can estimate your weekly pay on the program’s website).
The program provides one of the highest rates of wage replacement in the nation and offers some of the highest number of weeks an employee can take leave. A worker doesn’t have to take all the leave at once, but can use the leave in increments — using as little as eight consecutive hours each week. This is critical for anyone, for example, who needs one or two days a week to care for a parent with Alzheimer’s disease or to take care of a family member who gets chemotherapy treatments.
The program defines “family member” broadly, including siblings and grandparents as well as grandchildren, foster and step-children.
Businesses also receive benefits from the Paid Family and Medical Leave Program. For example, small-business owners do not need to pay the employer portion of the premium. Businesses with up to 150 employees can also apply for grants to offset the cost of a worker being out on leave, including grants to hire a temporary replacement or to cover training and overtime related to an employee being out through this program.
Before the program launched, ESD received calls and applications from Washingtonians planning to take paid family and medical leave — including calls about babies born in 2019, recent surgeries, and how to care for a family member with cancer.
“All too often, new parents and those with aging or sick loved ones face no-win decisions pitting the need for a paycheck against the need to be there for their family,” Inslee said. “This program will now help families and individuals navigate those difficult situations.”
You can visit the program’s website, paidleave.wa.gov, for more information and access the program’s most frequently asked questions. The site also includes tools for workers to evaluate eligibility, estimate their weekly pay and access a checklist to get ready to apply. Employers can find tools and information on the employer page of the website.