West Coast Sweep

Two Big Steps Closer to Paid Family and Medical Leave

On Sunday, Oregon’s legislature gave final approval to a new law providing paid family and medical leave. And on Monday, Washington officially launched the web portal that allows employers to pay the premiums they’ve been collecting for our state program.

With these two big milestones successfully passed, the day is fast approaching when workers up and down the West Coast will be able to recover from a serious illness or injury, welcome a new child, or care for an ailing loved one – without facing financial crisis.

Two years ago, Washington became the fifth state to enact a comprehensive paid family and medical leave program. The policy details were negotiated by advocates from the Work and Family Coalition, business representatives, and a bipartisan group of legislators. Since then, state staff, IT consultants, and stakeholder advisors have been racing to set up the systems and get the word out so that benefit payments can begin on January 1, 2020.

In January 2019, employers in Washington began withholding the employee share of premiums that will finance benefits – $1.22 a week for someone working full time at minimum wage and $2 to $3 a week for a middle-income earner. Employers with more than 50 employees also contribute to the fund (though workers in smaller companies are still fully covered by the program!)

Throughout July 2019, and quarterly thereafter, employers will deposit those premiums into the trust fund so that the state can begin paying benefits next January.

Paid family and medical leave both pulls at the heart strings and makes good economic sense. Experience in the pioneering states shows that it makes new moms and babies are healthier. Low-and moderate-income parents are able to take more leave when a child comes into the family, boosting children’s well-being health and family stability. Women gain higher earnings, and businesses enjoy more loyal and productive workers. Seniors and people recovering from serious health conditions spend less time in expensive nursing homes when a loved one can take time off work to care for them.

Paid leave is also highly popular with voters. A 2016 poll in Washington found strong majorities favoring a new program across party lines, age, gender, income, and region. National polls show the same, and presidential candidates are talking about it.

Yet paid leave has taken years of struggle to pass because it gives new rights to workers.

Oregon followed a path to paid leave similar to Washington’s. Advocates grew support for the concept and developed research-based policy over a number of years. And just like in Washington, the possibility of a ballot initiative lurking in the background pushed Oregon business lobby groups to the negotiating table to hash out a consensus proposal, which then passed the legislature on bipartisan votes.

Oregon’s bill passed two years to the day after Washington’s. Massachusetts and Connecticut also enacted programs during that time, joining California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New York, and the District of Columbia.

The danger of popularity is that it has encouraged some politicians to propose policies that sound good but that won’t actually empower workers with the ability to take leave and retain economic security when their health and families are at risk. That’s happened in Congress (where the FAMILY Act is a solid proposal but most other schemes that have been floated are not) and in multiple states. Getting the policy details right matters if we want systems that are truly accessible to the workers, families, and businesses who stand to benefit most.

California launched the first paid family leave program 15 years ago. Now the whole West Coast has model programs that show the nation the way forward.

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