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Some WA Lawmakers Want to Expand Paid-Leave Program

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In Washington state, 170,000 workers were able to take paid time off from work last year during the pandemic as a result of the Paid Family and Medical Leave program. (Neil/Adobe Stock)
In Washington state, 170,000 workers were able to take paid time off from work last year during the pandemic as a result of the Paid Family and Medical Leave program. (Neil/Adobe Stock)
January 15, 2021

OLYMPIA, Wash. - The Paid Family and Medical Leave program has been a source of relief for Washingtonians who have been sick or were caring for loved ones during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, state legislators would like to see it go further.

Lawmakers hold a hearing today on House Bill 1073, which would expand the program to more people, especially low-wage workers. State Rep. Liz Berry, D-Seattle, introduced the legislation - the first of her career in Olympia.

"Knowing that we're going to be dealing with that throughout the remainder of 2021," said Berry, "I think it makes sense to treat this as a priority - emergency legislation this next session - so that more workers can enjoy it."

HB 1073 would change the qualifying threshold so more workers can access it. It also would expand the definition of "family," and ensure that small businesses with fewer than 50 employees protect workers' jobs and continue their health insurance.

Since the program began in 2020, 170,000 workers have applied for benefits.

Marylin Watkins, policy director at the Economic Opportunity Institute, said the legislation aims to bring Washington in line with other states that have paid leave programs, including Oregon.

She said ensuring workers at smaller businesses have a job to come back to would be an important improvement on the current program, which doesn't guarantee that.

"That can be a real disincentive for people to take the leave," said Watkins, "or to take the full amount that they're entitled to and really need for their own health and the health of their family members."

Berry said supporting the program is personal, citing her own experience with her four-year-old son.

"When I was pregnant with him, my employer didn't have a paid family and medical leave program, and I was really disappointed in that," said Berry. "I knew my employer could do better and so, when I came to lead that organization just a few months later, I changed that policy."

The bill's public hearing in the House Committee on Labor and Workplace Standards is scheduled for 8 a.m. today. The Senate holds a hearing on a similar bill on Monday.

Disclosure: Economic Opportunity Institute contributes to our fund for reporting on Budget Policy & Priorities, Early Childhood Education, Livable Wages/Working Families, Senior Issues. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA