On July 5th, Washington state residents became the beneficiaries of the most comprehensive leave policy in the United States. The law, years in the making, will go into effect in 2020 and make The Evergreen State the first to offer the full 12 weeks of parental leave recommended by organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics.
But Washington State’s law isn’t unique simply in the amount of time it gives to parents and other workers. It’s also notable for being the first state paid leave law to be built from the ground up, rather than being chiseled from, or appended to, existing state policies. That allowed for a bi-partisan legislative process, open to the voices of the state’s business owners, which crafted a fully realized policy suitable for the majority of players.
Residents will qualify for the states guaranteed paid leave upon working 820 hours for a business with 50 or more employees. They are then allowed 12 weeks for the birth or adoption of a child, the care of an ailing family member, or in cases where both might occur in the same year, 16 weeks combined. An additional two weeks is allowed for mothers who have had health complications during birth. Leave pay, up to $1,000 a week based on a percentage of the employee’s salary, will be funded by a combination of employer and employee contributions to a new social insurance fund.
Notably, the funding mechanism was greeted warmly by many smaller Washington businesses. Some business owners pointed out that the relatively small employer contribution per employee was by far the least expensive way to provide the leave they’ve wanted give their employees. That said, the National Federation of Independent Businesses did come out in vocal opposition to the legislation, suggesting the employer contribution was too great of a burden. Still, they were unable to sway the firmly bipartisan votes in both legislative chambers.
Being a whole policy unto itself, advocates for family leave hope it will become a template from which other states can work. Currently, only a scattering of states offers any form of paid leave. California pays 55 percent of an employee’s weekly wage to a maximum of $1067 for 6 weeks. New York will get close to Washington’s policy by 2021, paying 60 percent of an employee’s weekly wage for 12 weeks. Rhode Island, meanwhile, only pays up to $720 a week for 4 weeks and New Jersey pays for 6 weeks of leave up to $524 per week, but only after certain conditions are met.
New Jersey’s policy recently came into the spotlight as legislators sent a far more aggressive paid leave policy to Governor Christie’s desk. That policy, like Washington’s, would pay for 90 percent of a worker’s wages for 12 weeks of leave. However, it is expected to receive a veto due to the fact that it does not allow for any additional funding mechanisms.
State paid leave appears to be an increasingly bipartisan issue in a country that is otherwise deeply divided. It’s possible that success in states like Washington could inspire national lawmakers to finally start agreeing.