The first numbers are in for California's landmark paid family-leave program, and Washington state Democrats hope the results will boost...

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The first numbers are in for California’s landmark paid family-leave program, and Washington state Democrats hope the results will boost their chances of getting a similar law passed here next year.

Nearly 138,000 California workers collected about $300 million in benefits during the past year, less than half the $656 million that employees paid into the program, according to a state report released earlier this month.

“Family leave in California is showing that it’s doing exactly what the Legislature wanted it to do,” said Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, D-Seattle. “They’re in the black and not the red, and that’s important.”

Dickerson and state Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, sponsored family-leave legislation in Washington last year; it failed.

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Business groups have fought the idea, arguing that another tax burden — either on workers or employers — would weaken the state’s fragile economic recovery. They also cautioned that paid leave would cause hardship to small businesses through lost productivity and other indirect costs.

“I don’t know that we can take California’s experience and say that’s what we’d have here,” said Carolyn Logue, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business. “We will still be opposed.”

Paid-leave backers initially wanted employers to pay half the cost to fund the program, pegged at 2 cents per employee work hour, or about $40 a year. To gain more political support, they followed California’s model and shifted that price tag to employees, who could have collected up to $250 a week for five weeks.

Family-leave bills, popping up in legislatures all over the country, expand the Family Medical Leave Act passed during the Clinton administration in 1993. The federal law protects jobs for workers who want to take up to three months off to care for a newborn or ailing loved one.

It does not offer wage replacement, however, and it doesn’t apply to businesses with fewer than 50 employees.

Paid-leave proponents, including the Seattle-based Take Back Your Time advocacy group, have pushed legislation in 21 states this year.

So far only California has adopted a paid-leave program, passed in 2002. The state’s 13 million workers may collect about half their weekly wages, up to $840, for six weeks. In the past year, benefits have averaged $409, the report noted, and the average time off was about five weeks.

Most of the claims came from mothers staying home to care for their infants.

Forecasters in California predicted that twice as many workers — some 300,000 — would apply for benefits at a cost of $600 million a year.

Labor advocates are encouraged by the numbers.

“People aren’t abusing the law,” Keiser said yesterday. “This is a reasonable accommodation that doesn’t cause tremendous problems.”

Logue, however, sees California’s lower-than-expected participation as further evidence that such programs should be voluntary. She added that the employee contributions now locked in a government program should be circulating through the economy.

Keiser and Dickerson say they’ll reintroduce the bill during the next legislative session.

Shirleen Holt: 206-464-8316 or sholt@seattletimes.com