Dueling paid family leave bills

Jan 17, 2017

Paid family and medical leave is emerging as the business issue du jour this legislative session.

SB 5032 would provide up to $1,000 per week for 26 weeks for a child’s birth or adoption to care for a family member and another 12 weeks of paid leave for the individual’s own health condition.  Workers could apply for both benefits in the same year, meaning they could receive 38 weeks of paid leave in one year.  Employees would be eligible for the paid leave after working just 340 hours (that’s an average of 6.5 hours per week). 

Employees and workers would share the cost with a new payroll tax.  The bill’s sponsor, Senator Karen Keiser, described her sweeping proposal as both “elegant” and “modest.” 

Contrary to being “modest,” SB 5032 would be, by far, the most generous (which means it would likely be the most expensive) paid family and medical leave law in the nation in terms of benefits, coverage and the eligibility threshold.  A watered down version of the bill proposed by Senator Keiser in 2013 would have cost employers and workers hundreds of millions every year. 

Across the political aisle, Senator Fain has sponsored SB 5149, which would allow 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, phased in over three years.  The first year of the law’s implementation in 2020 would mandate 8 weeks of paid family leave, followed by 10 weeks in 2021 and 12 weeks in 2022.  Like SB 5032, workers could use the leave for a child’s birth or adoption, to care for a family member or to recover from their own health condition.  Employees must work 26 weeks (6 months) to become eligible for the paid leave. 

The weekly benefit amount would also be phased in, starting at a maximum weekly benefit of 50% of the state average weekly wage in 2020, increasing to 55% in 2021 and topping out at 60% of the state average weekly wage in 2022.  The average weekly wage in Washington in 2015 was $1,082.  So the maximum weekly benefit amount would be significantly less than proposed in SB 5032.

The program would be funded entirely by employees through a payroll tax, as is done in the four other states with paid family and medical leave laws.

Another difference between the two proposals is that SB 5149 enjoys bipartisan support, with three Democrats signing on to the Republican-primed bill.  And while there is likely little chance that the anything but “modest approach” of SB 5032 will survive the Senate Commerce, Labor & Sports Committee, committee chair Michael Baumgartner has signed on to SB 5149.