The Washington state Legislature passed a measure Sunday that would give all employees in the state five weeks of paid leave for a new child...
OLYMPIA, Wash. — The Washington state Legislature passed a measure Sunday that would give all employees in the state five weeks of paid leave for a new child.
The Senate passed the bill on a 26-22 vote to agree with changes made in the House that significantly scaled down the measure from what the Senate initially passed. If Gov. Chris Gregoire signs the measure into law, as expected, Washington will become the second state in the country with a paid family leave law on the books.
“This bill is a matter of values,” said Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, the measure’s main sponsor. “It’s a bill that values families. How can we talk about family values if we don’t provide the help our families need?”
Under the bill, starting in 2009, workers would get $250 a week for up to five weeks to care for a newborn or a newly adopted child.
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Originally, the measure would have allowed workers also to take leave to care for a seriously ill relative. It also would have imposed a 2-cent-an-hour tax on employees’ pay to cover the benefits, but the House removed that language and instead created a 13-member task force — including lawmakers, business representatives and others — that would study how to finance the program. The task force must report its findings to the Legislature by Jan. 1.
The Senate was initially set to concur on the House version on Saturday night but many Senate Democrats were upset about the changes and initially unwilling to agree.
“They liked the Senate version better,” Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said after the contentious caucus on the issue Saturday night. “They’re feeling like we’re backtracking.”
But on Sunday morning, the Democratic caucus decided to move ahead and pass the measure.
“The bill before us is not as generous, it is not as complete as the bill we passed earlier, but this bill is a very good start,” Keiser said. “We will finish the details of the job over the next few years.”
Six Democrats still crossed the aisle to vote against the measure: Sens. Mary Margaret Haugen of Camano Island, Chris Marr of Spokane, Erik Poulsen of Seattle, Marilyn Rasmussen of Eatonville, Phil Rockefeller of Bainbridge Island and Tim Sheldon of Potlatch.
One Republican who voted for the measure when it passed the Senate, angrily derided Democrats for capitulating to the House version.
“Where is the Senate’s backbone on this issue?” asked Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver.
Benton said he was upset that a tax credit for businesses was removed, as well as the language for caring for ill relatives.
“This was an important piece of legislation and I was happy to support it but I’m not going to support it now because it’s not what I agreed to,” he said.
The new version sets aside a loan of at least $18 million for the biennium ending June 30, 2009, for the initial administration set-up costs for the program.
The measure would also require employers to hold workers’ jobs open while they are on leave, although an amendment would exempt businesses with less than 25 employees from that requirement.
Supporters have been trying to get paid family leave through the Legislature since 2001. Two years ago, it passed the Senate but got stopped in the House.
Under federal law, paid leave is not required, but businesses with 50 or more employees must give workers up to 12 weeks of medical leave per year for themselves or to take care of a new child or ailing relative.
The bill that passed the Legislature on Sunday requires the paid leave to be taken concurrently with the federal leave.
A coalition of mothers and their supporters gave the measure much of its momentum this year, sending more than 12,000 e-mails to lawmakers since the legislative session began in January, baking cookies for lawmakers and conducting rallies at the Capitol. MomsRising.org is a new national women’s advocacy group whose symbol is “Rosie the Riveter” holding a baby.
“This is a giant step forward for Washington’s mothers, fathers, children and families,” said Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, co-founder of MomsRising. “We’re thrilled.”
The watering down of the bill came, in large part, because of stiff opposition from business groups, who argued that the measure will drive up costs for small businesses.
“Most businesses would tell you that they presently take care of their employees currently,” said Gary Chandler, vice president for governmental affairs at the Association of Washington Business. “They don’t need government telling them how to do it.”
California is currently the only state with paid family leave, but its law is much more expansive, with workers also allowed to take leave for their own health conditions. That state’s measure pays 55 percent of a workers’ pay for six weeks, up to $882 a week.