A Bright Spot in 2020 for Washington State

The successes and lessons learned in Washington's first year implementing Paid Family and Medical Leave

Originally published in the South Seattle Emerald

One bright spot in this mostly dismal 2020 has been the launch of Washington’s Paid Family Medical Leave program (PFML). About 170,000 workers have applied for benefits this year. They include many people who had the joy of welcoming a new child into their family, others coping with a serious health crisis, and people like my good friend who is caring for her father through his last months of life.

Before PFML, extended paid leave benefits were typically only available to highly paid employees of a few large companies. Lower-wage workers and people from BIPOC communities had the odds stacked against them in the “boss lottery.” Now almost everyone who works in Washington can take 12 to 18 weeks off work to recover their own health or care for a loved one without sacrificing financial security.

COVID has shone a spotlight on our society’s inequities and also highlighted the PFML program’s strengths. PFML works like insurance. Employers and employees contribute small premiums, then workers receive benefits from the state when they have a qualifying condition: birth, adoption, or foster placement of a child; their own or a family member’s serious health condition; or a family member’s overseas military deployment. As long as someone worked at least 820 hours in the last year or so for any combination of employers, they can draw benefits now, even if they’ve been laid off or furloughed.

The benefit structure also promotes equity. Lower-wage workers receive close to their full usual pay, and mid-salary workers get about 70% of pay up to a maximum of $1,000 a week. That maximum goes up to $1,206 in January, and employers have the option of “topping off” benefits.

PFML allows small businesses that are struggling to survive COVID closures to provide their employees life-changing benefits, paid out of the trust fund rather than from the employer’s own reserves. Small businesses with fewer than 50 employees aren’t required to pay the employer’s share of premiums, giving them an added boost.

Washington was just the fifth U.S. state to enact comprehensive PFML, thanks to the long-term advocacy of the Work & Family Coalition and many individuals and small business owners. Other states have followed with programs modeled after ours, including Oregon, and Colorado just became the tenth state.

Initially, Washington’s new program experienced some stumbles. Far more people applied last January than expected. Many workers waited weeks to have their applications approved and receive their benefits. Now, most applicants receive approval within two weeks. The state has also added information in multiple languages to their website. However, phone wait times for people who can’t apply online or need extra help can still be lengthy.

One area many people have found confusing is parental bonding leave and pregnancy-related medical leave. Here’s the scoop. Both parents may take up to 12 weeks bonding leave at any time during the first 12 months after birth or placement of an adopted or foster child. Any time off needed to maintain a healthy pregnancy and recover from childbirth also qualifies for additional medical leave – even when there are no complications. People who take both medical and family leave can take a total of up to 16 weeks of leave in a year. In most cases to take both, you would first apply for medical leave while recovering from childbirth, then apply for family/bonding leave. If you do experience serious complications, such as preeclampsia or postpartum depression, you can take up to 18 weeks of leave. One parent might want to split up their leave, taking some when the child first arrives and the rest when their partner is ready to return to their job.

We’ve heard from many people that paid family and medical leave has been a major blessing and total game-changer. But we’ve also heard concerns about limitations that undermine racial equity in the program. One is about who qualifies as family when a loved one needs care. Washington’s PFML program has a pretty expansive definition, including grandchildren, siblings, and in-laws. But “families” come in all sorts of constellations. Other states, including Oregon, have included anyone related by blood or affinity who has a relationship in the nature of family.

Job protection is the concern we hear most. Currently, employers with 50 or more employees are required to hold the job and continue health insurance for anyone who has worked for them for at least a year and 1,250 hours in the past year. But that leaves people still at the mercy of the “boss lottery” if they work in smaller companies, are new to their job, or work part-time. White professional workers have a much better shot at winning that one than Black, Indigenous, or immigrant workers. Washington is now an outlier, with 7 of the 9 other state programs guaranteeing job protection to almost everyone.

Washington’s qualifying threshold of 820 hours worked in the past year is also more restrictive than most other state programs. Oregon’s PFML qualifying standard is just $1,000 in earnings – that’s 74 hours of work at Washington’s 2020 minimum wage. With so many people laid off or losing hours due to COVID, that 820-hour threshold will disqualify many people who need benefits in the next couple years. Again, not a problem for high salary professionals working comfortably from home, but a major hurdle for those in restaurants, retail shops, accommodations, and other sectors hit hard by pandemic closures.

Washington’s Paid Family and Medical Leave program has helped many thousands of individuals and families cope with this extraordinarily challenging year. By addressing these shortcomings, we can continue to push the program to be more equitable and do even more to support health and vitality across all our communities.

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