Guest Opinion: State shows bipartisan efforts in family and medical leave act

Twenty-eight years ago, a freshman senator in the state Legislature, Patty Murray, dismissed as just a “mom in tennis shoes” but now the state’s senior U.S. senator, shepherded through the Capitol the family and medical leave act, with the support and leadership of then-Speaker Joe King, Rep. Jay Inslee, Rep. Maria Cantwell and the Washington State Labor Council.

This became the template for the federal family and medical leave act signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Finally the government recognized that workers had a right to take leave to care for their newborn and newly adopted children and seriously ill family members. It was a small step. It only applied to companies with more than 50 employees. It had no mechanism for compensation while on family leave.

Now the people of Washington and their elected leaders have since pushed further. We are part of a new trend for worker and family protections, being only the fifth state to guarantee paid family and medical leave.

Gov. Jay Inslee recently signed a bill in which the Legislature created the best paid family and medical leave in the country. Starting in 2020, every worker will be entitled to 12 weeks of leave for a worker’s own serious medical condition and 12 weeks to care for a newborn, adopted child or family member — up to a total of 16 weeks. If a woman has complications from pregnancy, she is eligible for an additional two weeks.

The benefit amount will be determined on a progressive scale — a first in the United States — with low-wage workers receiving up to 90 percent of their wages while on leave and an overall cap of $1,000 per week. Once a worker qualifies for the program, the worker can change jobs without losing coverage. That portability will better accommodate a modern workforce where workers change jobs with increasing frequency.

Like Social Security and Medicare taxes, both Washington workers and companies will contribute to the leave fund through their taxes with a 0.4 percent tax. For example, someone making $54,000 will pay $2.62 per week. Companies with fewer than 50 employees are exempt from these employer contributions.

That’s how we in Washington put family values to work! Just as Washington’s 1989 bill became the model for federal action, this new law already is being heralded as a template for legislation in other states and nationally. The Seattle Times calls it “among the most generous in the nation.”

WBUR radio in Boston says Washington’s law begs for a national “debate around an idea whose time may have come.” And check out this quote from the New York Times’ coverage of the new law: “We don’t see this as an alternative to federal policy; we see this as a way to get a federal bill,” said Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values@Work, a network of state advocacy groups. “It creates an imbalance where a certain number of people have it and others say, ‘We want it.’”

This was a bipartisan effort. Rep. June Robinson, D-Everett; Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines; and Sen. Marko Liias, D-Everett, have been working for a paid family and medical leave law for years.

This year, the savvy determination and moral suasion of Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, and the willingness of local business groups to come to the table to really negotiate was the key to this legislative victory for working families.

This is not just a bill created by liberal groups like MomsRising, Legal Voice, the Washington State Labor Council and the Economic Opportunity Institute, but also featured the input of the Association of Washington Business, the Washington Retail Association, the Washington Hospitality Association and the NW Grocery Association.

These leaders taught a lesson in how we could do politics and make policy in our country: Instead of yelling at each other and locking one party out of decision-making, we can progress with true bipartisanship.

All of us, and perhaps especially elected leaders in Washington D.C., could learn something from Washington state’s success!

John Burbank is executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute (www.eoionline.org). His e-mail address is john@eoionline.org.

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