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Introduction and Overview
The Economic Opportunity Institute collaborated with Families of Color Seattle to conduct two listening sessions in March 2021 on Black, Indigenous, and other women of color’s experiences with Washington’s Paid Family & Medical Leave program (PFML). Fifteen women who had recently had babies participated: 14 used or had applied to the PFML program; one had her baby in 2018 before PFML benefits were available, and took unpaid leave under federal and state laws. The purpose of the listening sessions was to receive feedback on how the PFML program affected users and their families, identify any barriers in using PFML, and receive recommendations on improving program accessibility, especially for BIPOC women.
The participants highly valued the additional time they – and for those who had partners, their partners – were able to spend with their babies because of Washington’s PFML program. Most of them were able to take longer leaves, with less stress and more quality time to heal themselves and bond with their babies because of PFML. The program relieved financial pressure on their families, and it gave some of them bargaining power with their employers.
The women also saw room for improvement in the application and claims processes and customer service. Even those who considered themselves internet savvy found parts of the process cumbersome and the information on the website confusing. Many were unsure how much leave they were entitled to and how to access both medical leave to recover from childbirth and bonding leave. There was general consensus among the participants on the need to make written explanations and instructions more clear; simplify the transition between medical and bonding leave; and provide better phone access and alternative ways to get questions answered and problems solved without spending hours on hold.
In their interactions with employers and coworkers, some of the women felt very supported, while others experienced push back or outright discrimination. Some of the women were the first in their companies to use the program, and felt they had to figure everything out on their own and explain it to their bosses. For those in larger companies whose HR department or supervisor could help walk them through the process, applying was much easier. Some workplaces were supportive of taking the full amount of leave. Other women’s coworkers and bosses referred to their leaves as “vacations” and/or pressured them to return to work. Some participants believed they had been shuttled onto a “mommy track” with less responsibility and lost promotions. At least one woman was explicitly told she would lose her supervisory position if she took all the paid leave she was entitled to.
Washington’s PFML Program: Washington approved a paid family and medical leave program in 2017, began collecting premiums from employees and employers to finance the program in January 2019, and began paying benefits in January 2020. The program provides workers with up to 12 weeks of medical leave to recover from their own serious health condition – including recovery from childbirth, and up to 12 weeks of family leave to bond with a new child, care for seriously ill family, or cope with a family member’s military deployment. There is an annual maximum of 16 weeks combined medical and family leave, or 18 weeks if there is a pregnancy-related complication. Both parents may take their bonding leave any time during the first 12 months following the child’s birth or placement with the family. Benefits replace 90% of usual wages for low wage workers, about 70% for middle-wage workers, with a maximum weekly benefit in 2021 of $1,206. People who have worked 820 hours in the past year in the state are eligible for benefits. Washington’s Employment Security Department administers the program.
Demand for the PFML was higher than projected for the first year of a new program. As a result, from January through June 2020, wait times to have benefits approved could take up to 10 weeks or more. With additional staffing and improved processing procedures, ESD has usually been able to act on an application within two weeks since June 2020 – even with the adjustment to remote operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Four other states already had established comprehensive programs when Washington’s program launched, but Washington was the first to build a full program from the ground up. Ten states now have approved programs.
The Economic Opportunity Institute (EOI): EOI is a nonprofit policy research and advocacy center based in Seattle with a mission to build an economy that works for everyone. For two decades, EOI has staffed and led the Washington Work and Family Coalition, which developed the campaign and proposal that ultimately resulted in passage of PFML in 2017.
Families of Color Seattle (FOCS): FOCS is a nonprofit led by mothers of color that connects parents in a loving community, provides workshops and family engagement activities, and equips parents and educators to talk with children about identity, racism, equity, and inclusion.
About the Listening Sessions
EOI contracted with FOCS to advise on format and recruit participants for two listening sessions on Washington’s PFML program. The sessions were conducted via Zoom on March 22, 2021, one in the morning and one in the late afternoon, lasting between 60 and 90 minutes. Each participant received $50 for their time and expertise.
A total of 15 women participated in the two sessions. All had given birth recently.
- 12 had received PFML benefits; 1 had her baby in 2018 before PFML benefits were available and took unpaid leave under federal and Washington laws; 1 was denied benefits due to insufficient hours worked; 1 was denied because she applied before her baby’s birth, but was in the process of reapplying.
- 9 had completed leaves and returned to their jobs; 2 were still on leave; 2 were pursuing education; 2 had completed their leaves and were staying home with their children (one whose son was born with disabilities and one with two preschoolers).
- All took at least 8 weeks leave; most took 12 or more weeks, some also using medical leave – but even those who took both medical and bonding leave tended to be confused about eligibility and how much total leave they were entitled to.
- Those who had partners reported that their partners also took leave.
Responses to Washington’s Paid Family & Medical Leave Program
Enthusiasm for Paid Family & Medical Leave
- There’s so much mental and emotional stress being a new parent. I really want this precious time with my new daughter. I’m tired, but I love it.
- Not having the program would have meant a setback in our financial goals – paying down student loans, mortgage, other debt; trying to save with young kids. Mental health wise, it makes a big difference, especially with the pandemic. Even without the pandemic, being able to stay home is huge emotionally.
- I always recommend it to new moms I know at work and church… It’s a wonderful program.
The women were enthusiastic about PFML allowing them to take longer leaves without as much emotional or financial stress. Most said they would have gone back to work much sooner without the program. One woman with two older children said the program was a factor in her decision to have a third child. PFML allowed her to take twice as much time off as with the first two, with less of a financial hit. She concluded: “This feels so much better.” Another woman said that knowing the program was there took a load off her shoulders while pregnant. A single mom with no nearby family called the program a “godsend” and said that without it, she would probably would have had to move back to Texas to be near family.
Those with partners appreciated that their partners could also take time at home with them and the baby. One woman said, “It allows me to cope with everything happening in the world.” A woman who had had a C-section and another who had twins both expressed that they did not know what they would have done without their husbands at home during the first few weeks. Several partners took several weeks of leave when the baby was born, then the rest of their leave when the birth mother returned to work.
COVID made access to PFML even more important, with all the added stress, older kids stuck at home, and distant family unable to come and help the new moms.
Finding out about the program
Many of the women found out about the program from their employers, others through their partner’s employers, coworkers, or a family member. One woman heard about it through a parent group and another through MomsRising.
Responses of employers
In general, the women’s employers were at least verbally supportive or neutral about them taking leave. Large employers with HR departments tended to be more knowledgeable and offer more support in applying than very small companies. One woman said her HR department walked her through the whole process and made it very easy. More commonly, employers provided basic information and left it up to the employees to figure out how to apply. Several women were the first ones in their company to use the program and had to educate their employers about it.
Some employers coordinated their own leave programs with the state program, with clear policies on supplementing benefits and extending leaves. One woman whose partner’s company supplemented benefits up to the employee’s full wage convinced her boss to adopt the same policy.
Two of the women reported adverse actions from their employers. One woman stopped receiving new projects and was assigned to a different team once she revealed her pregnancy. Her coworkers referred to her maternity leave as vacation. She said she felt disrespected and treated as if she had no ambition. She has not been promoted, while another childless woman of color who was hired at the same time in the same position was promoted two or three times. The only other mother on the team was a white woman who had a similar experience of being sidelined into a less challenging role, suggesting to her that the company’s attitude was targeted at mothers rather than a display of racial bias.
Another woman did feel that she experienced racial discrimination. She was a supervisor when she had her baby and was one of the few BIPOC women in her department. Her employer told her she would have to return early from maternity leave if she wanted to keep her supervisory position, while a white woman was able to stay out longer and retain her position.
All of the women who applied to PFML did so online. Basic parts of the process including uploading documents seemed easy and straightforward for most of them. The participants encountered several consistent problems:
- Confusion over medical and bonding leave: Almost all of the women were confused about how much total leave they were entitled to, and when they could or should take medical leave versus bonding leave.
- Transition between medical and bonding leave: ESD requires separate applications for medical and bonding leave, so anyone desiring to take the full 16 or 18 weeks someone would be entitled to by combining medical leave for pregnancy and childbirth recovery with bonding leave needs to make a separate application. Navigating this process with a new baby is especially challenging.
- Confusing explanatory materials: Even those who considered themselves internet savvy found parts of the Paidleave.wa.gov website and communications from ESD confusing. In addition to confusion over the amount of medical and bonding leave they could take, challenges encountered included navigating on the website to the actual application, lack of clear instructions when an application is denied, and uncertainty when approved dates for leave seemed to differ from the “bucket of hours” ESD said they had available.
- Telephone wait times: Since benefits launched in January 2020, call wait times have been lengthy, with many dropped or abandoned calls. Waiting on hold with an infant and possibly other young children at home was especially difficult. When calls were answered, customer care staff were consistently helpful and empathetic.
- Delays in approving benefits: During the first 6 months of 2020, applicants frequently waited 10 weeks or more to have their leaves approved. Waiting for benefits constituted an extreme hardship for most families. Some employers stepped in and fronted income for employees.
These issues all compound. The women tried to call because they had so many questions about how the program worked and the communications they received from ESD. Not being able to get through on the phones added to the sense of frustration. Clearer explanations on the website, plain language communications from ESD, and a smooth transition between medical and bonding leave would all result in far fewer calls in the first place. Participants also described feeling like their applications went into a black hole and would have liked some indication of where they were in the process.
The participants all wanted to maximize their time with their newborns, but when in doubt, some opted to return to work sooner rather than risk running out of benefits. For example, one woman with a high risk pregnancy was approved for 14 weeks of medical leave and returned to work when that ended because she was confused about how to access bonding leave. Several other women also said they were confused about how much total leave they had available and felt they probably had not taken all they could have.
For Washington’s and Other PFML Programs:
- Conduct ongoing outreach oriented toward both employers and employees with clear information about employee rights to paid leave, including rights to freedom from retaliation and job protection.
- Conduct ongoing research to illuminate the extent to which the program is equitably accessible and used across racial, gender, and income groups and employment type. Develop administrative and policy change priorities to increase equity.
For Washington administrators:
- Revise the medical certification form and communications on the website to make abundantly clear that medical leave is available to someone during pregnancy and recovery from childbirth even without “serious complications.” Launch a communications campaign aimed at health care providers, doulas, and parent groups with the updated information.
- Allow people to apply for medical leave and bonding leave with one application.
- Prioritize speedy processing of initial applications.
- Significantly reducing telephone wait times and provide additional ways to communicate and have questions answered.
- Provide some kind of tracking tool through an applicant’s account that tracks both where their application is in the process, and once they begin drawing benefits, how much approved leave they still have available.
 The regular qualifying period is four consecutive quarters out of the previous five completed quarters. A recently passed 2021 law will allow people who lost work due to COVID qualify for leave based on 2019 or early 2020 hours, https://app.leg.wa.gov/billsummary?BillNumber=1073&Year=2021&Initiative=false
 See paidleave.wa.gov
 California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and New York had the first comprehensive programs. The District of Columbia and Massachusetts now also have operating programs, and Connecticut, Oregon, and Colorado are implementing programs.
 Marilyn Watkins, “The Road to Winning Paid Family and Medical Leave in Washington,” Nov. 2017, https://www.opportunityinstitute.org/research/post/the-road-to-winning-paid-family-and-medical-leave-in-washington/
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