Washington becomes 5th state with paid family and medical leave law

By ERIN SHANNON  | 
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Jul 5, 2017

While it took one regular session and two special sessions for the state legislature to agree to a budget, a sweeping new proposal making Washington the 5th state in the nation to mandate paid family and medical leave benefits sailed through both chambers last week.

After holding a hearing on the paid leave provisions on Wednesday, SB 5975 easily passed the House and Senate just two days later and now awaits the Governor’s signature.

Beginning January 1, 2020, every worker in the state will be eligible to collect the most generous paid leave benefits in the nation (up to 18 weeks of paid leave annually with a maximum of $1,000 per week in replacement wages).  The leave could be used for the birth or adoption of a child, or to care for a sick family member or the employee’s own serious health condition.  Employers and workers will fund the program with a new payroll tax the state will begin collecting on January 1, 2019.

The bipartisan bill is the product of months of negotiations between lawmakers, labor unions and the business community.  However, not everyone agrees with the state’s landmark mandate on employers.

Representative Liz Pike called the program “one step toward a socialist government,” and Senator Padden said the program would be  “job-killer” for Spokane-area businesses competing with businesses across the border in Idaho that aren’t subject to the same costly regulations and mandates. For example, the minimum wage in Washington is $11, and will increase to $13.50 by 2020, and employers must provide paid sick leave.  The minimum wage in Idaho is $7.25 and that state has no paid sick leave requirement.

As Representative Cary Condotta put it, "On its own principles, it’s [paid family and medical leave] a good idea.  The problem is when you combine it with everything else.”

During the hearing on the provisions of the bill, Senator Baumgartner expressed concern that while the proposal was negotiated by members of the business community, every one of them that he has spoken with “has said we don’t like the policy, but we’re afraid of an initiative.  It’s been what I could call legislative coercion on the policy.”  He said the threat of a more onerous initiative created an environment of “fear, cowardice and opportunism.”