Washington Launches Paid Family and Medical Leave: Pennsylvania Should Follow Suit

Diana Polson |

We all know things come up in the course of our lives that can bring joy and/or create stress—welcoming a new child into your home, caring for a loved one who is ill, or dealing with an illness yourself. One of these life-altering events is a guarantee as we all move through different stages of our lives, interfering with our ability to work, usually for a relatively short period of time. Given that reality, you would think it common sense to have a paid family and medical leave policy that covers all of us in those times of need.

While it is widely known that most industrialized countries have some sort of national paid leave policy, it is less well known that the United States is one of only two countries across the world that have zero weeks of paid leave.

It seems like the whole world has clued in to the reality that in life-changing instances, workers need support to care for themselves and their families. However, in the United States, without national legislation, only 13% of private-sector workers have access to paid family leave. Fully 25% of mothers in the U.S. return to work less than 2 weeks after giving birth.

While the U.S. struggles to get a clue, those in Washington State have taken matters into their own hands. On January 1, 2020, Washington officially launched its Paid Family and Medical Leave program. Now eight states plus Washington D.C. have paid family and medical leave laws on the books.

Considered the best, most extensive leave program in the U.S., Washington State’s program operates like an insurance program. Benefits include 12 weeks of paid time off in a year that can be used to care for a new child or sick relative, to recover from an illness, or to spend time with a family member being deployed to the military or returning home from deployment. A worker can take 16 weeks to recover from childbirth and bond with the baby or up to 18 weeks if they face serious pregnancy-related complications.

Benefits are progressive. During leave, lower-wage workers can receive up to 90% of their gross weekly salary ranging from $100 to $1,000 a week. The main requirement is that workers must have worked, at any job in the state, for at least 820 hours in the last year.

In Washington, workers and employers pay a very small amount of money into the system, which started collecting these funds in January of 2019. Workers pay 63% of the weekly premium and employers pay 37%. (Small employers with 50 employees or less are exempt.) This breaks down as follows. A minimum wage worker who works full time in Washington would make weekly payments of $1.36 and their employer would pay $.80/week. Workers who earn $85,000 per year would pay $4.12 per week and the employer would pay $2.42.

These regular payments ensure that any worker in the state can access these benefits when they bring a child into their home or face a medical emergency in their family. Washington’s program launched on January 1. By January 3, the state already had applications from 6,400 people, showing the widespread and urgent need for such a program.

Pennsylvania has an opportunity to pass similar legislation this year. The Family Care Act is bipartisan legislation that would establish a paid family and medical leave insurance fund in Pennsylvania. Such a program can ensure that we can be supported in both the joyous and difficult times that all Pennsylvanians will surely face over the course of our lives.