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Washington State’s New Family and Medical Leave Program

On June 30th, the Washington State Legislature passed Substitute Senate Bill 5975, which offers employees paid time off for serious health conditions or for the birth or adoption of a child and to care for a family member with a serious health condition. Family member is defined as a “child, grandchild, grandparent, parent, sibling, or spouse of an employee.” Paid leave is also available for employees who experience a qualifying exigency under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act caused by the foreign deployment of a family member.

Washington joins California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and New York as states with paid family leave programs.

Benefits are based on an employee’s wages and may be paid beginning January 1, 2020 for employees who worked at least 820 hours during the “qualifying period”, which is defined as the first four of the last five completed calendar quarters, or, if eligibility is not established, the last four completed calendar quarters immediately preceding the application for leave.

family leaveGenerally, both employers and employees will pay into the system. The Bill specifies a premium of .4 percent of wages beginning on January 1, 2019. The wage base subject to the premium assessment is the same as the wage base subject to social security taxation as set forth by the Social Security Administration. That rate will be adjusted beginning in 2021 and will range from a minimum of .1% to a maximum of .6% of the employee’s wages subject to the assessment. The premium is split into two parts, initially set at 1/3 for family leave and 2/3 for medical leave. The family leave portion is paid entirely by the employee, while 45% of the medical leave portion is paid by the employee and 55% is paid by the employer. However, employers may elect to pay all or any portion of the employee’s share of the premium. Beginning in 2022, the premium rates for the two parts will adjust based on the percentage of paid claims related to family leave benefits and the percentage of paid claims related to medical leave benefits.

Eligible employees will receive benefits for 12 weeks of either family leave or medical leave or 16 weeks for a combination of both. An additional 2 weeks of benefits are available for employees who experience a serious health condition with a pregnancy that results in incapacity. The initial benefit will be 90% of an employee’s average weekly wage up to fifty percent of the state’s average weekly wages, plus 50% of an employee’s wage above fifty percent of the state’s average weekly wage. That is, employees will be paid 50% of their wages above ½ the state’s weekly wage and 90% of their wages below ½ the state’s average weekly wage. Thus, benefits are progressively designed and help lower-income employees the most. Initially, the weekly benefit will be capped at $1,000 per week and be adjusted annually to 90% of the state’s average weekly wage.

There is a 7-day waiting period before collecting benefits, except in cases of birth or adoption.

Employers with fewer than fifty employees employed in the state are not required to pay the employer portion of premiums, but if an employer with fewer than fifty employees elects to pay the premiums, the employer may be eligible for certain grants to help defer the costs if an employee is out on medical or family leave.

Self-employed individuals, including sole proprietors, independent contractors, or partners, may elect coverage, but such individuals must elect both family and medical leave coverage and are responsible for the employee share of the premiums.

Companies that already offer, or adopt in the future, family and medical leave programs can opt out of the program provided their programs are at least equivalent to the state program.

Premiums will be collected through payroll deductions and remitted to the Employment Security Department to be held in trust.

The bill can be read in its entirety here.

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