Washington workers can soon access paid family leave benefit

By Rachel La Corte/The Associated Press

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Employees in Washington state can soon start applying for time off under the state’s paid family leave law.

Kate Ginn, a 33-year-old project manager for a non-profit in Tacoma, is among those ready to submit her paperwork on Thursday ahead of the birth of her first child in late January. While Thursday is the first day eligible employees can apply for the program, benefits will be retroactive to Jan. 1, when the benefit portion of the new law technically takes effect.

Ginn, whose husband is in graduate school full time, said that the new benefit was instrumental in their planning on when to start their family.

“It’s been a lot less stressful as we prepare for that time, knowing I can take the full three months off and not have to rush back to work," she said.

Eligible workers receive 12 weeks paid time off for the birth or adoption of a child or for serious medical condition of the worker or the worker’s family member, or 16 weeks for a combination of both. An additional two weeks may be used if there is a serious health condition with a pregnancy. The time does not need to be taken consecutively, but a minimum of eight hours at a time must be used if the benefit is claimed.

State officials say that the goal is to process all applications within two weeks. Once the application is approved employees can start filing weekly claims right away and get paid, and any payments employees are eligible for from their leave start date will be paid retroactively.

For the past year, employees and employers have paid into the program that was approved by the Legislature in 2017. Premiums of 0.4 percent of workers’ wages fund the program, with 63 percent paid by employees and 37 percent paid by employers.

According to the Employment Security Department, an employee making $50,000 a year pays about $2.44 a week, while their employer pay about $1.41 a week, for a weekly benefit of about $731.

Self-employed individuals who elect coverage pay only the employee share of the premiums, and employers with fewer than 50 employees are exempt from paying the employer share. Companies that already offer such programs can apply for a waiver, as long as the benefit the company offers is at least equivalent to the state program.

Weekly benefits under the new law are calculated based on a percentage of the employee’s wages and the state’s weekly average wage — which is now $1,255 — though the weekly amount paid out would be capped at $1,000 a week. Workers who earn less than the state average will get 90 percent of their income. Employees must work at least 820 hours before qualifying for the benefit, and those hours can be from one job or combined from multiple jobs. People who are between jobs can still take the benefit, as long as they worked the qualifying hours.

The U.S. is the only industrialized country that does not federally mandate paid parental leave, but some large companies offer such benefits, and Washington is among nine states and the District of Columbia to have approved laws that give employees paid leave for the birth or adoption of a child, to care for sick relatives or to deal with their own medical conditions. The states’ programs vary in both time off and each state has its own formula for determining the amount of benefits employees can receive.

And under a measure passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump in December, the federal government’s 2.1 million employees will be eligible for parental leave starting in October 2020.

Kristen Rowe-Finkbeiner, executive director of MomsRising, a national organization that advocates for economic security, said that such policies appeal to to voters regardless of political affiliation because at some point, most people need to take time to deal with positive or negative events that occur in their lives.

“It’s addressing a struggle so many people have faced," she said. “And the momentum for change is growing."