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Washington Paid Family and Medical Leave Rollout Update

The Employment Security Department is hiring additional staff to meet demand

Washington’s new Paid Family & Medical Leave program fully launched January 1, 2020 to intense demand. More than 22,000 applications came in during the first month, far more than projected. Washington is the first state to build a PFML program from the ground up. The four states that implemented earlier programs were able to add paid family leave to long-established temporary disability insurance (TDI) systems that covered workers’ own serious health conditions, including pregnancy and recovery from childbirth. Those states all experienced lower than expected demand in their first few years for family leave, in part because many workers didn’t know about the new benefits, wage replacement was often insufficient, and TDI was already covering the majority of cases.

Washington deliberately crafted its program with higher and progressive wage replacement rates than the first four states had, and included an outreach requirement in legislation authorizing the program. In addition, the cooperative engagement of business associations, labor unions, and nonprofit organizations in program implementation and outreach may well have boosted general knowledge, particularly among employers.

Washington’s Employment Security Department (ESD) has transferred staff and is hiring additional staff to meet demand, but in the meantime, phone wait times are long, and many people are having to wait several weeks to have their claims approved, which can be an extreme hardship during an already stressful period of life.

The good news is:

  • everyone qualified for leave will have their claims paid;
  • claims will be paid retroactively;
  • the technology is working; and
  • ESD is responding with transparency and a commitment to ensuring good customer service going forward.

The majority of this first wave of applicants in Washington appears to be parents requesting bonding leave for births that happened in 2019. Bonding leave is available for a full year after the birth or placement of a child, so this is both allowable and not surprising, especially given the lack of paid family leave throughout the private sector, the high cost and limited supply of infant childcare, and the social media network among new and prospective parents.

Four other states are currently in the process of implementing PFML programs similar to Washington’s, and other states are considering establishing programs. Some potential lessons for them:

  1. Expect and prepare for a pent up backlog of demand. Possible measures include opening the system for advance applications at least a month in advance; and training and loaning staff from other state agencies for the launch period.
  2. Providing clear, easy-to-understand, and consistent instructions for applicants, health care providers, and employers, to minimize the number of questions and incomplete applications.
  3. Allow people to check the status of their applications online, provide email answers to inquiries, and regularly post updates and FAQs on the website and social media.
  4. Make sure policy and systems allow for retroactive benefits.

This initial phase of implementation also highlights the strengths of Washington’s approach to a comprehensive, equitable, publicly administered PFML program:

  • There is a clear need for comprehensive, inclusive PFML programs.
  • The problems and responses are transparent – with a public agency and accountable director, there is no hiding behind claims of proprietary information or prioritizing image over results.
  • Everyone will get the benefits they are due – the agency is motivated by public service and benefits to the public. It has no profit motive or other reason to deny benefits to anyone who is eligible.
  • The full resources of the state are available to address short term problems.
  • We will get full data on program usage in real time that will allow continuous evaluation and improvement, both of application and approval processes and of underlying policies.
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