On Wednesday July 5, 2017, Governor Jay Inslee signed a bill into law that will make Washington the fifth state in the nation to require paid family and medical leave for employees. The bill is set to take effect on January 1, 2020, and provides among the most generous benefits of its kind in the country.
The Basic Legal Framework
Under the new law, Washington workers will be entitled to take up to 12 weeks of paid leave for the birth or adoption of a child, to care for a severely ill family member, or to deal with the worker’s own serious health condition. A Washington employee will also be able to take paid leave in connection with certain military exigencies, for example the short notice deployment of the employee’s spouse or domestic partner. Workers taking leave for both family and medical events will generally be entitled to a maximum of 16 weeks per year, although an additional two weeks of leave will be available if a female employee experiences pregnancy-related complications.
The paid leave will be funded by both employers and employees and will operate as a social insurance program. Beginning on January 1, 2019, the Washington Employment Security Department (ESD) will collect premiums equal to an initial rate of 0.4% of wages, with 63% of the premium paid by employees and 37% paid by employers. Alternatively, an employer may elect to pay the entire premium amount itself. The premium rate will be reviewed and adjusted annually by ESD.
To receive payment under the program, an employee will file a claim for benefits with ESD. The amount of benefits paid to an employee during a qualifying family or medical leave is determined under a progressive formula, meaning that a lower wage worker is entitled to receive a larger percentage of their weekly wages than an employee with a higher income. The maximum weekly benefit amount is $1,000. Under the formula, a worker making $28,000 per year will receive 90% of their weekly wage amount (approx. $485 per week), a worker making $50,000 per year will receive 73% of their weekly wage amount (approx. $701 per week), and someone making $85,000 will receive a benefit equal to 61% of their weekly wage ($1,000 per week).
Who is Eligible For Benefits under the Law?
Generally, any Washington employee who worked at least 820 hours during the previous year will be eligible to receive benefits under the program. Small businesses with 50 or fewer workers will not be required to pay the employer portion of the premium, but may choose to do so in order to be eligible to receive certain state assistance funds. Employers that provide more generous paid leave programs to their employees may opt out of the state program as well. Self-employed individuals and independent contractors may opt in and will only be required to pay the employee share of the premiums.