OLYMPIA, Wash. — Washington's new law giving parents five weeks paid time off to be with a new child is second only to California.
Now a task force is working to figure out how to run the system, and more importantly, how to pay for it.
The 13-member committee is meeting once a month through December to decide who will run the new program, how much it will cost, and where the money will come from.
Under the law that the Legislature passed earlier this year, starting in October 2009, workers would get $250 a week for up to five weeks to care for a newborn or a newly adopted child.
"The policy of having paid family leave is extremely popular," said Rep. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma and member of the committee. "The challenge here is to reach a greater consensus around the two issues that were probably the most contentious, the administration and the funding."
Supporters have been trying to pass a paid family leave measure since 2001, and only succeeded this year after lawmakers gutted the original bill. The first version of that bill would have covered care for a seriously ill parent and would have paid for the program with a 2-cent-an-hour tax on employees' pay. The original bill also would have allowed the weekly payment of $250 to rise yearly with inflation.
But opposition from the business community was fierce, and lawmakers ultimately had to scale back the proposal. Lawmakers authorized a loan of at least $18 million to set up the program over the next two years.
Task force members are set to decide who will run the program at their next meeting on Sept. 26. Subsequent meetings will address the costs of the program, and how to pay for it. Under the law, the task force must have a report to the Legislature by Jan. 1.
"We shouldn't have passed this bill without having these questions answered first," said Sen. Janea Holmquist, R-Moses Lake and member of the committee. "We're doing this backward, and I do have serious concerns about whether we'll be able to fulfill our part of the deal."
At its first meeting in August, committee members heard from four state departments being considered to run the program: Labor and Industries, Employment Security, Health and Community, Trade and Economic Development.
But among concerns cited by some of the groups was the undetermined administrative costs, as well as additional paperwork and challenges with getting the program up and running in time.
For example, Labor and Industries, which already oversees the state's worker's compensation program, said that if it were chosen to start the family leave program, it would take two years to provide benefits. The Legislature, which meets from January to March next year, needs to approve any decisions the task force makes. Under that time frame, they wouldn't meet the law's requirements that benefits begin in October 2009.
"I think eyes are getting opened that this thing may not be feasible," said Rep. Cary Condotta, R-East Wenatchee, a task force member who was opposed to the new law. "This is the Rubik's cube that can't be solved."
Conway disagreed, and said there was plenty of time to "work in a good faith effort here to find some common ground."
A recent analysis of costs by the Department of Labor and Industries has 21,600 claims receiving $19.7 million in the first year. That costs rises to $28.9 million with 31,700 claimants by 2015. The analysis does not include the cost of administering the program.
"In the big picture of the budget that we work with, that's not a huge item," said Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent and co-chair of the task force. "I'm very aware that we have to make it fair, we have to make it equitable, and we have to make it stand on its own. I am confident we can do that."
Employers with 25 or more employees are required to hold workers' jobs open while they are on leave, after they've been employed for a certain amount of time.
The Washing-ton state program requires paid state leave to be taken at the same time as any unpaid federal leave.
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.
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 and to care for ailing relatives. That state's measure pays 55 percent of a worker's pay for six weeks, up to $882 a week
—The Associated Press