Washington House committee considers paid family leave bill

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OLYMPIA — A day after a Senate committee approved a measure to repeal an as-of-yet unfunded law giving parents five weeks of paid time off to be with a new child, a House committee on Tuesday heard arguments on why that same program should be expanded.

Paid family leave was approved by the Legislature in 2007, and was supposed to start paying benefits of up to $250 a week starting in October 2009. But without an agreed-upon funding source, the Legislature has postponed its implementation twice.

The House Committee on Labor & Workforce Development on Tuesday held a public hearing on the bill that would expand the underlying measure to include caring for a family member or an employee’s own disability. The bill, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Tami Green of Lakewood, would expand the weekly benefit from a flat rate to a percentage of the employee’s wages, up to $1,000 per week. The measure also would expand the time allowed from five weeks to 12 weeks. California and New Jersey have similar laws.

Green called family leave “a practical solution.”

“It will promote strong families and a secure middle class,” she told the committee, noting that it could mean fewer families would be forced to go on public assistance.

“In the long term it will save us money,” she said.

The program would be paid for with a 0.2 percent payroll tax on both employees and employers starting in 2014 that would increase in 2016 to 0.4 percent of wages. Benefits would start in January 2015.

“It’s a well-meaning bill, but quite honestly, I can tell you most of the businesses cannot afford this piece of legislation,” said Gary Smith, executive director of the Independent Business Association.

Smith said that businesses that could afford to implement such a program can already do so on their own, and that there shouldn’t be a state mandate on others who can’t.

“This law is not needed,” he said.

A similar companion bill has been introduced in the Senate, but the committee that it has been referred to approved a bill on Monday that would repeal the underlying law.

Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee has said he’s not in support of repealing the law, but hasn’t taken a position on the expansion bill.

A repeal of the state paid-leave law would have no impact on federal leave laws. Under federal law, paid leave is not required, but businesses with 50 or more employees must give workers up to 12 weeks of medical leave per year for themselves or to take care of a new child or ailing relative.

The state law requires the paid leave be taken concurrently with the federal leave.

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