Workers, Business Owners, Health Care Experts, and Community Groups Testify to Create Paid Family and Medical Leave Program
Thursday the House Labor and Workplace Standards Committee heard public testimony on the Washington Work and Family Coalition’s proposal for paid family and medical leave in Washington.
House Bill 1116, sponsored by Rep. June Robinson (D – Everett), would allow all Washington workers to use extended paid leave for events like the birth of a child, a personal health emergency, or to take care of an ill family member, like an aging parent.
Thursday the House committee heard support for the proposal from Washington workers, parents, business owners, health care experts and community leaders.
“Our company has grown from a small start-up to a medium-sized company,” said Sarah Bird, CEO of Moz. “We’ve gone through good times and tough times, but the constant has been that we believe in supporting our workers so they have strong, healthy families. This proposal will allow businesses large and small to afford providing critical benefits to their workers.”
HB 1116 would allow workers to take up to 26 weeks of paid family leave for the birth or adoption of a child, or to take care of a seriously ill family member, and up to 12 weeks of paid medical leave for a worker’s own serious health condition. It would be funded by payroll premiums paid by both employees and employers, costing each about $2 a week for a typical Washington worker – which makes it incredibly affordable for business owners.
“Paid family and medical leave is the right thing to do, but very few of us could afford to provide the benefit on own own,” said Don Orange, owner of Hoesly EcoAutomotive in Vancouver. “That’s why a program that is split – a couple bucks from a worker, and a couple bucks from me – is incredibly affordable and easy to implement. This would also benefit small business owners, because it would allow me to contribute to my own paid leave, because business owners aren’t immune from life’s unexpected events.”
“Our coalition created this policy based on what’s already working in other states and what doctors recommend,” said Marilyn Watkins, Policy Director for the Economic Opportunity Institute, which convenes the Washington Work and Family Coalition. “Our proposal will improve health and financial stability for Washington’s working families and strengthen our economy.”
Paid family leave would mean better health outcomes for women, babies and families. Despite the high costs of infant childcare and pediatricians’ recommendations to breastfeed for at least six months, one in four women go back to work within two weeks of childbirth because they can’t afford to stay home longer.
“In my clinic, I witness the difference it makes when a family can afford to take unpaid leave – the difference it makes in reducing parental stress and post-partum depression, and in uptake and duration of breastfeeding,” said Dr. Lelach Rave, a pediatrician in Everett. “I know the evidence is clear: providing paid leave to parents improves child and family health and families’ financial security.”
Women in states with paid leave programs take longer leaves and are more likely to be working a year following childbirth and earn more than women in other states.
“At YWCA, we believe that no one should have to choose between their livelihood and their health, their family, or their safety,” said Liz Mills, Director of Advocacy and Policy at YWCA Seattle King Snohomish. “Yet far too many women and families, particularly women and families of color, must make this choice every day.”
The proposal would also provide important benefits to Washington’s military families and veterans. Paid family leave would allow leave for “military exigency” – when a family member is on active duty or called to active duty, so families could take time to move, or cover childcare for the service member, seek counseling, take care of financial concerns, or simply spend a couple weeks with a loved one before they’re deployed.
“When it comes to taking care of our vets, sometimes the best thing we can do is support their families,” said Raymond Miller, a veterans’ advocate, PTSD counselor and president of Vets Place Northwest – Welcome Home. “Having a spouse able to stay home to help them while they’re struggling with PTSD could mean getting into treatment faster, and having a spouse there to receive medical instructions and help with support at home can mean the difference between life and death.”
Only 14 percent of workers have access to paid family and medical leave, usually high-wage earners, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Among lower-wage workers – predominantly women and people of color – the rate is 4 percent.
“Federal unpaid leave is great but as a low-wage worker I cannot afford to take unpaid days off,” said Karina Romero, a UFCW 21 worker and mom from White Center. “When my son was sick last month and had to spend two weeks in the hospital, I had to take that unpaid. Workers like me should not have to choose between caring for our sick kids and paying bills.”
“No matter where you work or what you do, all of us have at some point faced one of those unexpected life emergencies,” said Rhonda Parker, a SEIU 775 caregiver from Lacey. “Last year I was hospitalized for a week, but without access to paid medical leave I was back at work on Day 8. Because of lost pay, I was behind on my rent and the bills, and I had to rely on going to a food bank to be able to feed my family.”
A recent poll showed at least 72 percent of Washington voters supported passing paid family and medical leave, and the Work and Family Coalition is looking to the Legislature to act.