The Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce opposes a “one-size-fits-all” approach on family leave legislation in Olympia.
So far, the chamber has not taken an official position on the two plans that have begun their journey through the Legislature, waiting for more to unfold first, said Austin Neilson, the chamber’s government affairs director.
“We’re definitely keeping an eye on them in terms of specific positions,” he said.
The chamber does oppose a “one-size-fits-all” tactic due to differing circumstances faced by businesses of different shapes and make-ups, he said. It is relying on the Association of Washington Business to monitor the legislation.
In Olympia, the individual plans of Republicans and Democrats are in the committee stage. The bills — a matching pair by Senate and House Democrats and one by Senate Republicans — are prompted by 2016’s passage of Initiative 1143, which increases the state minimum wage to $13.50 and mandates family leave for employees. The initiative passed by a 57 percent to 43 percent margin.
The initiative requires employers to provide employees with paid sick leave — one hour of paid sick leave for every 40 hours of work starting Jan. 1, 2018.
Tanya Neilsen, owner of a 39-employee fitness center in Maple Valley, noted, “The recent minimum wage hike took $30,000 out of my business.”
Paid sick leave may be used for the employee’s or a family member’s injury, illness or health condition. Also, employees may use paid sick leave for absences due to closure of the employee’s work site or their child’s school or place of care due to a public health issue. Employers must pay employees using paid sick leave at their regular pay rate or the minimum wage, whichever is greater, according to a House labor committee staff memorandum.
Both parties in Olympia are expanding those requirements with family leave bills.
Ultimately, the Senate Republican bill and the House Democratic bill are almost sure to pass in their original chambers with the two parties likely facing negotiations on a compromise.
In the House, Rep. June Robinson, D-Everett, introduced the Democratic bill.
“It’s a benefit for all of us. No matter who you are, you will need this at some time in your lives,” Robinson recently told the House Labor and Workplace Standards Committee.
Robinson’s bill would:
• Allow 26 weeks of leave for birth or adoption of a child, a family member’s serious health problem or a military-related absence.
• Allow a person to be eligible for sick leave after 340 hours of work.
• Put the benefit amount at 90 percent of the person’s average weekly salary during that individual’s highest-paid six months of the person’s year of qualifying for sick leave. This applies if a person’s average weekly wage is less than under 50 percent of the average state weekly wage, which was $1,082 in 2015. A different formula is used if a person’s average weekly wage is more than 50 percent of the state average. The maximum benefit is $1,000 a week.
• Require employers to pay a premium to a state fund for sick leave money of 0.255 percent of a person’s wages beginning in July 1, 2018, and then 0.51 percent on July 1, 2020, with annual adjustments later. The employer would be allowed to deduct half of the premium from a worker’s wages.
So far, the Association of Washington Business has no position on this bill, other than seeking an exemption for businesses with few employees.
At a recent committee hearing, medical officials and several employees supported the bill — as did the Main Street Alliance of Washington, the National Organization of Women and the Union of Food & Commercial Workers, or UFCW. The Washington State Farm Bureau, the Washington Retail Association the Washington Food Industry Association and the Independent Business Association oppose it.
“It’s embarrassing that we (the United States) are the last of 41 (top industrialized) nations to offer paid leave,” said Sarah Bird, CEO of the 160-person internet marking firm MOZ, which is based in Seattle.
Lelach Rave, president of the Washington Chapter of the Academy of Pediatricians, said studies show that paid family leaves makes families healthier and less likely to need public assistance or hospitalization. Also, the more bonding a new mother does with her newborn child, means that mom is less likely to deal with maternal depression, she said.
Single parent workers can be torn between caring for sick children and losing pay, which is a no-win situation, according to testimony.
“As a low-wage worker, I cannot afford to take a day off,” said Karina Romero, a member of UFCW.
Grocery and farm interests cited the tight profit margins of their industries being unable to deal with an extra premium payment for sick leave.
“We’ve got a lot of businesses already complying with the minimum wage increases. … We’re concerned about how we’re going to layer this on,” said Carolyn Logue of the Washington Retail Association.
“Our employers would love to give every employee paid family leave, but they can’t afford to do so,” said Holly Johnson of the Washington Food Industry Association, which represents independent grocers.
Gary Smith of the Independent Business Association added: “It’s like having a ball and chain on your leg as you run a marathon.”
Meanwhile in the Senate, Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, introduced a family leave bill that would affect companies with 50 or more employees who have worked at least 26 weeks at the firm. It would cover leave for the employee’s health and the worker caring for family members.
Bill highlights include:
• Covering 12 months of mother-newborn child bonding.
• Starting Jan. 1, 2020, the sick leave would have an eight-week maximum per year. The payment would be 50 percent of the employee’s weekly salary, with the amount not to exceed 50 percent of the average state weekly salary.
• On Jan. 1, 2021, the bill would bump sick leave up to a maximum of 10 weeks per year. It would be 55 percent of an employee’s weekly wage, but will not exceed 55 percent of the state’s average weekly wage.
• On Jan. 1, 2022, the limit would stay at 10 weeks per year, but the sick leave wage would be 60 percent of the employee’s weekly salary, not to exceed 60 percent of the state’s average wage.
• In 2023, the amount of sick leave would go up to 12 weeks a year. The weekly leave pay would be 67 percent of the employee’s average wage, not to exceed 67 percent of the average state wage.
• The state would set the premium for a family leave insurance fund each year.
“It’s important we have multiple options, Fain said. “This is going to be an opportunity to take some (minimum) wage gains, and put them into paid family leave. These are big issues we are grappling with,”
Business interests mostly favored Fain’s bill at a recent hearing. Non-business interests tended to support Keiser’s bill at a Senate Commerce, Labor & Sports committee hearing.
“Sen. Fain’s bill leaves many people out,” said Marilyn Watkins, representing the Economic Opportunity Institute, contending it does not address part-time workers and it has insufficient benefits.
Alexandria Montoya of the state Board of Health said Keiser’s bill has better potential to improve economic security for workers
While the Association of Washington Business took no hard stance on either bill at the recent hearing, Bob Battles, AWB’s government affairs director, said the organization leans in favor of Fain’s legislation.
Dave Parker of Seattle-based Code Fellows voiced concerns about Keiser’s bill’s 26-week leave. “Everything that is mandated causes me to hit a ‘pause-and-wait’ button,” he said.
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