Washington family leave bill passes

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A “best in the country” bill allowing for paid family leave has the governor’s signature.

Locally, opinions are mixed, though a few who never thought they’d be in favor of such legislation ended up saying yes.

During a legislative review luncheon last week, several local state lawmakers addressed business leaders on what happened throughout the past legislative session. Among conversations regarding heavily-covered topics such as the Interstate 5 bridge and school funding, the legislators were also asked about a bill drawing bipartisan support (as well as some resistance) that will see paid leave for workers to care for a new child or a sick family member.

“This bill is probably from an advocate’s standpoint the strongest and the best in the country,” Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, said.

Starting in 2020, the bill allows eligible workers 12 weeks of paid leave following the birth or adoption of a child, or in the event of a serious illness in the family (including the worker). Sixteen weeks are available in the event of a combination of both types of leave.

Gov. Jay Inslee signed the bill July 5, finishing a compromise among legislators to get something on the books.

Washington is one of only five states in the U.S. to offer such a program, joining California, Rhode Island, New Jersey and New York, which will have its program starting up next year.

As to why the bill was able to get through, legislators had their feet to the fire with the possibility of the public voting it in via the state’s initiative process.

“The threat of a possible initiative brought a lot of people to the table and worked through a lot of the concerns that people would naturally have about such a change in our policy to the point where we were able to get it done,” Wylie said.

Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, was one of several local Republicans who voted for the legislation. She herself is a business owner in Clark County, along with her husband, Tracy, with DeWils Industries.

“This bill was a difficult bill for me. I started off (thinking) heck no,” Wilson said. 

Also adding, “it supports the family values that we always talk about. ” 

The bill also wouldn’t hurt small businesses, Wilson said, as those with 50 or fewer employees can opt out of the employer’s share of the payment.

“This plan is a reasonable plan; it’s not going to break anyone,” Wilson said. 

Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, said he was likely one of the few Republicans who was in favor of the legislation at the outset. He explained that in the past he had 21 employees and in order to be competitive in the market he had to provide such a benefit. He admitted that at the time having to pay for the benefit was “a pain in (his) side,”

“If I would have had the opportunity today, I would have signed up to this for my employees in a heartbeat,” Harris said.

On a more personal note, Harris mentioned that he has had two individuals who were terminally ill thanking him for his support of the bill, as legislation like the bill would allow for care in terminally ill patients in their final months.

Not all of the legislators gathered were in support of the bill. Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, was one of the “nay” votes, citing examples of other similar programs and the tax burdens they had. She mentioned specifically Labor and Industries claims insurance as well as unemployment fund surpluses in the multiple billions.

“Think how quickly the paid family leave will have big surpluses built up, and it will be your money that will be built up into those surpluses,” Pike said. 

She also touched on all of the items that were put in the bill to make it more palatable, which she said would inevitably change “when the financial structure doesn’t meet the demand of the number of claims into the program.”

Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, clarified that the program will be run by the state Employment Security Department, not L&I. She added that fact led to another local Republican legislator, Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, to vote strongly for the bill, citing positive dealings with the department.

Rivers, voted for the bill while  Rep. Brandon Vick,

R-Felida voted against it. 

Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver, also voted against the bill, and expressed concerns that it would inadvertently cost family-wage jobs.

She said she had talked to several local small business owners in her district, mentioning one manufacturer who was eyeing a move to Idaho should the bill pass.

“Those are realities, and because of those aspects I did not support this,” Kraft said.

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