Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

Family leave insurance can help prime the pump for economic recovery

Whether we’re in a recession or economic boom, almost all employees have family obligations. From planning the birth of a new baby, to taking care of an elderly parent,  to dealing with long term medical emergencies, time away from work is sometimes required to care for yourself or your family. There’s no sane economic rationale for forcing people to risk their job to do that — but that’s the reality for many Washington workers. Just 41% earn paid sick days, and 65% earn paid vacation, which puts the economic security of tens of thousands of workers at risk for falling ill or starting a family.

Without the ability to earn paid time off at work, personal or family medical problems, or the birth or adoption of a new baby can mean falling behind on the mortgage or rent, purchasing less, and having to rely on public assistance until a new job becomes available. That’s not good for our families, our communities or our economy. A state-funded program — one that doesn’t cut benefits during lean times as many businesses do during a recession — is especially critical because it helps families maintain financial security, and ensures we keep a strong middle class intact to fuel a robust recovery.

Washington Family Leave Insurance (FLI) is an example of just such a program. It is specifically designed to help families maintain economic stability during tough times. Passed into state law in 2007, FLI was slated to provide $250 per week for up to 5 weeks to all new parents starting in October 2009; expanded coverage for care of a spouse/domestic partner or immediate family member was also in the works. By 2011, nearly 50,000 Washington families would have benefited.

I say “would have” because the program was initially passed without a funding source, and finding a one has been delayed by the recession and state budget shortfalls. As a result, FLI isn’t actually available when our families need it most. But while this is certainly disappointing news, there is also cause for hope:  recent action by the federal government may help Washington fund the program.

Congress is poised to include $50 million in federal grant money in its budget to help states cover family leave start-up  and implementation. With the encouragement of these federal dollars, Washington families could begin receiving benefits soon — something that would have offered welcome relief to local parents like Alexandra Fleming:

Alexandra Fleming, a 29-year-old social worker from Seattle, should have benefited from the law after the birth of her daughter, Charlotte, almost a year ago. The family was able to scrape by on her husband’s high school teacher income, but the extra cushion would have been welcome.

“When you’re a new parent, you have to stretch the budget,” Fleming said. “For us, $250 would have made a big deal.” (

Since the start of the recession, job creation and getting people back to work has been a point of emphasis at all levels of government. Stimulus dollars, tax incentives and unemployment benefits have all been utilized to cushion the blow(s) of the recession. But getting people back to work is just one sensible goal for state economic policy.

We shouldn’t overlook an even larger group of workers: those  struggling to balance job and family, and maintain their economic security, amidst the worst recession in decades. Keeping our families healthy and people at work — especially during a recession — is a surefire way to not just slow our economic slide, but also “prime the pump” for recovery.

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