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Senate bill would repeal unfunded family medical leave insurance

Sen. Karen Keiser - Courtesy photo
Sen. Karen Keiser
— image credit: Courtesy photo

By Zoey Palmer
WNPA Olympia News Bureau

Paid medical leave for new parents may remain an unfulfilled goal if a bill in the state Senate becomes law.

Senate Bill 5159, sponsored by Sen. John Braun (R-20th District, Chehalis), would repeal Washington's Family and Medical Leave Insurance Act (FLI), which requires employers to pay $250 per week to employees who are on family leave.

Two other bills, one in each house, are proposed that would expand FLI coverage.

Reflecting on SB 5159, Braun told members of the Senate Committee on Commerce and Labor in a public hearing last week, "This Act was one of good intentions, but it's one that we never properly funded."

FLI was passed in 2007, but implementation was delayed in 2009 and again in 2011 because funding to start the program could not be secured. FLI is still unfunded, but is slated to go into effect in 2015 if not repealed.

Washington currently provides unpaid leave for new parents, including adoptive parents, under the Washington Family and Medical Leave Act of 2006 (FLA). FLA is an extension of a similar federal law.

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid medical leave for both parents, while Washington's law can provide up to 24 weeks depending on medical needs. Both laws also cover leave taken to care for a seriously ill family member and ensure that the employee may return to work in the same position or a position of equal responsibility, pay and benefits.

Neither the federal law nor Washington's FLA law provide paid family leave.

Women and immigrants especially need paid family leave, said Emily Murphy of the immigrant advocacy group OneAmerica, because they disproportionately work in fields where pay and benefits are low, such as retail, construction and hospitality.

"Family and medical leave insurance is critical for our members who give their lives to their jobs, working for decades in grueling physical conditions," said Murphy.

Some business-owners say that having the law in place, but unimplemented, is an uncertainty that makes hiring new workers unattractive. They want it removed.

"They don't know what it's going to cost, they don't know how it's going to be funded, they don't know if they're going to be taxed or how much they would be taxed; it is an unknown," said Independent Business Association Executive Director Gary Smith.

Erin Shannon, Small Business Director for the Washington Policy Center, a conservative think-tank which supports repeal, said that businesses may cut non-mandated benefits to make up for the cost of mandatory paid family leave benefits.

According to Sen. Karen Keiser (D-33rd District, Kent) who sponsored the 2007 FLI bill, the program would cost $11-13 million to set up and benefits would be paid for through a one-cent-per-hour premium paid by employees, similar to worker's compensation.

"It's just like an insurance plan," Keiser said.

Explanations differ for why FLI has been on the books for six years without being funded. Some, such as Keiser, blame political infighting combined with the Great Recession, which greatly hurt state income. Others say the Legislature simply lacks the political willpower to pay for the program.

Kris Tefft of the Association of Washington Businesses, which supports repeal, is in the latter camp. "In 2009, when the program was originally set to come into existence, the Legislature hit the snooze button," he said. "In 2011, the Legislature hit the snooze button again."

Former Gov. Christine Gregoire's proposed budget, most of which current Gov. Jay Inslee is likely to adopt, also does not fund FLI.

Tefft said this means the Legislature will "simply unplug the alarm clock," which amounts to de facto repeal.

Many opponents of the bill say that FLI should be kept as law until funding can be found.

Mike Elliot, a small business owner, said at the hearing, "I want to have something like this available for my employees as my small business grows."

Two other states besides Washington — California and New Jersey — currently have paid family leave laws. According to Sarah Francis of MomsRising, an advocacy group for women and families, 177 countries have some form of paid maternity leave, but the United States is not one of them.

The bill was passed out of committee during an executive session on Monday, Feb. 5. Its next stop is the Senate Rules Committee, which decides whether the bill moves to the Senate floor for consideration.

Keiser is currently sponsoring a new bill that would expand the FLI program to pay two-thirds of an employee's pay up to a maximum of $1,000 per week for up to 12 weeks of family or medical leave. If passed, SB 5292 would raise the premium to $2, which may be shared between employee and employer. It has not been scheduled for a hearing.

Its House companion bill, HB 1457, had a public hearing Feb. 5.

Puget Sound Advocates for Retirement Action board member Frank Irigon said during that hearing that as more Washingtonians reach retirement age, "our kids now have the responsibility of caring for an elder in addition to the responsibilities to their own children and their jobs."

He added, "Family and medical leave insurance is part of the solution to a looming crisis in elder care."

Francis also testified in support of the bill.

Steve Neighbors, chairman of the TERRA Staffing Group, a Washington temp agency, opposes HB 1457 as well as the original FLI program. "It's just another tax, another labor expense," he said.

Programs like FLI also constrain businesses, said Neighbors. "When all employers have to do the same thing, you take away opportunity, you take away creativity, and everybody looks the same," he told the committee.

Also speaking in opposition were Tefft, Smith and Shannon.

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Full bill texts, lists of sponsors and links to archived hearing videos:

SB 5159: apps.leg.wa.gov/billinfo/summary.aspx?bill=5159&year=2013

SB 5292: apps.leg.wa.gov/billinfo/summary.aspx?bill=5292&year=2013

HB 1457: apps.leg.wa.gov/billinfo/summary.aspx?bill=1457&year=2013

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