OLYMPIA (Jan. 19, 2021) — The Paid Family and Medical Leave program has been a source of relief for Washingtonians who have been sick or were caring for loved ones during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, state legislators would like to see it go further.
Lawmakers held a hearing last week on HB 1073, which would expand the program to more people, especially low-wage workers. State Rep. Liz Berry (D-Seattle) introduced the legislation, the first of her career in Olympia.
“Knowing that we’re going to be dealing with that throughout the remainder of 2021,” Berry said. “I think it makes sense to treat this as a priority — emergency legislation this session – so that more workers can enjoy it.”
HB 1073 would change the qualifying threshold so more workers can access it. It also would expand the definition of “family,” and ensure that small businesses with fewer than 50 employees protect workers’ jobs and continue their health insurance.
Since Washington’s Paid Family and Medical Leave program began in January 2020, 170,000 workers have applied for its benefits. It guarantees three types of paid leave:
► MEDICAL LEAVE when a serious health condition prevents you from working. This covers a wide range of serious health needs. For example, you can qualify because of a major surgery, after giving birth to a baby, for bed rest during pregnancy, to receive treatment for a chronic health condition, and to receive inpatient treatment for substance abuse or mental health.
► FAMILY LEAVE when you need to take time off to care for a family member. If your family member has a serious health condition that would qualify them for medical leave, or if you’re welcoming a new baby or child into your family, that’s when you can take family leave. All new parents can apply for up to 12 weeks of leave to bond with a newborn, adopted or foster child younger than 18 years old.
► MILITARY LEAVE allows you to spend time with a family member in the military. If your family member is about to be deployed overseas or is returning from overseas deployment, that’s when you can take this type of family leave.
Marylin Watkins, policy director at the Economic Opportunity Institute, said the legislation aims to bring Washington in line with other states that have paid leave programs, including Oregon. She said ensuring workers at smaller businesses have a job to come back to would be an important improvement on the current program, which doesn’t guarantee that.
“That can be a real disincentive for people to take the leave,” said Watkins, “or to take the full amount that they’re entitled to and really need for their own health and the health of their family members.”
Berry said supporting the program is personal, citing her own experience with her four-year-old son.
“When I was pregnant with him, my employer didn’t have a paid family and medical leave program, and I was really disappointed in that,” said Berry. “I knew my employer could do better and so, when I came to lead that organization just a few months later, I changed that policy.”
The bill’s public hearing in the House Committee on Labor and Workplace Standards is scheduled for 8 a.m. today. The Senate holds a hearing on a similar bill on Monday.