Washington state to roll out broad new paid leave policy: What workers and employers should know

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On Jan. 1, Washington state will begin implementing one of the most generous paid family and medical leave programs in the nation, allowing employees to take up to 16 weeks of paid time off to care for new children and deal with illnesses and injuries.

In a nutshell: The program functions like insurance and applies to all companies with more than 50 employees. The premium is equal to 0.4 percent of wages, with employers and employees each paying a share starting Jan 1, 2019. One year later, the benefits kick in. Qualifying workers will be able to take up to 16 weeks of paid time off to care for new children, sick relatives, or to recover from an illness. They will receive weekly pay that equals up to 90 percent of their regular salary, with a minimum of $100 and a maximum of $1,000 per payment.

Many tech companies already offer comprehensive paid leave as a perk to compete for talent. GeekWire caught up with Suzi LeVine, commissioner of the Washington Employment Security Department and Carla Reyes, director of the Paid Family and Medical Leave program, to find out what the new policy means for those employers and for workers across the state.

“We’re just very excited about having this best-in-the nation program,” said Reyes, citing the “great opportunity that this presents to really drive home how Washington is a great place to work and to live.”

Paid Family and Medical Leave cheat sheet:

Employers will need to start collecting and paying premiums on Jan. 1. All employers with more than 50 employees will have to pay an amount equal to 0.4 percent of their payroll. In April they will begin the requisite reporting for the program, which requires tracking hours and wages of all employees, freelancers, and contractors. Companies with existing family and medical leave policies that are equal to or more generous than the state program can apply to continue operating their own plans.

Companies with headquarters outside of Washington will also be required to pay 0.4 percent of the wages they pay to employees who work in the state.

Employees could pay up to 63 percent of the Paid Family and Medical Leave Premium, depending whether their employer decides to cover some or all of their portion. For example, the total premium for an employee making $2,500 in one pay period would be $10. If the employer doesn’t cover the employee’s portion, then she would pay about 63 percent of that $10, amounting to $6.33 per paycheck.

To qualify for the program, employees have to show that they’ve worked 820 hours over four quarters. Those hours can be aggregated across several employers if, for example, a worker has a part-time job and drives for Lyft.

Workers eligible for the policy can take up to 16 weeks of paid leave to care for new children, sick relatives, and to recover from medical issues. Mothers who experience complications during pregnancy can take an additional two weeks to recover. Each week, employees on leave receive a percentage of their gross wages up to $1,000.

Gig economy services: State officials are still working out whether companies that rely on heavily on contractors, like Uber and Postmates, will be required to pay a percentage of the wages those workers make. All workers providing gig economy services who work the requisite number of hours will be eligible for the benefit, regardless of whether or not the company pays. The state plans to review each company on a case-by-case basis.

Independent contractors, freelancers, and self-employed Washington residents aren’t required to pay premiums for the paid leave program but they can opt-in if they want to receive the benefits. To qualify, self-employed workers have to pay the employee portion of the premium and work 820 hours over four quarters.

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