Washington’s new paid family and medical leave program is so popular, it’s causing problems.

Since the program went live three weeks ago, more than 20,000 Washington state residents applied for the partial-wage-replacement leave program. And the large volume of applications has led to longer than anticipated wait times — close to four weeks — for processing with the Employment Security Department.

But the state says it will make it up to those affected by the delay, paying applicants retroactively to the date of their leave, not when their application is approved.

“Having over 20,000 applications in just three weeks is a testament to the need Washingtonians have for paid leave to care for themselves and their families,” Suzi LeVine, commissioner at the ESD, said in a news release. “We recognize that there may be some who will experience hardships by not getting the benefit sooner than we are able to process their application, and we apologize deeply for the difficulty this may cause.”

The majority of taxpayers in the state, as well as large employers, began contributing to the program in 2019 with paycheck deductions. As long as a Washington resident worked 820 hours in 2019, or about 16 hours a week, and experiences a qualifying event, they can apply for and receive partial wages for up to 12 weeks of medical or family leave. In most cases, the number of weeks is determined by a health-care provider.

The family and medical leave program may be used for three main reasons, though other circumstances can also qualify a person for the benefit.

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First, if a person or their family member becomes severely ill, gets in an accident or requires treatment for a chronic health condition or a surgery, they might be eligible. Second, if a parent wants to take time to bond with a new baby or an adopted or foster child, he or she can also use paid leave in the child’s first year with the family. Lastly, family members of active duty military service members who are about to be deployed or return home may use the new leave program to spend time with them.

Washington residents who are eligible receive up to 12 weeks of partial wage replacement through the program, at up to 90% of their wages. A Washingtonian who makes a $50,000 annual salary, for example, could receive about $731 a week through the program.

The Employment Security Department set up a wage estimate calculator, but totals are not determined until after an application is approved.

The majority of working Washingtonians contribute a small portion of their paychecks to the new public leave program. Employers with more than 50 employees contribute to the program, too. People who make a $50,000 annual salary contribute about $2.44 a week to the program from their paychecks.

“It works like an insurance program: You pay into it and draw from it when you need it,” said Clare DeLong, communications manager for the program.

The law applies to the majority of working Washington residents, but not all. Federal employees, people employed by businesses located on tribal land that did not opt in to the program, self-employed people who did not opt in and some union workers with contracts that have not been negotiated since Oct. 19, 2017, might not be eligible.

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The Employment Security Department has curated checklists of documents necessary to apply, including giving advance written notice to your employer and proof of identification. Additionally, any medical-related leave must be certified by a signed form from a health-care provider.

Not everyone who uses the paid family and medical leave program is guaranteed that their employer will hold their job for them. However, employers with more than 50 employees have job protection if they have worked longer than a year or 1,250 hours the year before they take their leave.

Washington residents who are eligible apply for the paid family and medical leave program directly through the Employment Security Department’s paid leave website. The department notifies employers when an employee applies for the program and then again if they are approved or denied, DeLong said, but employers do not receive information about what medical condition a person is leaving for. An employee does not have to disclose their specific condition in their leave notice either.