Photo courtesy Washington State Democrats: State Rep. Liz Berry listens to testimony about a bill she sponsored to expand Washington’s Paid Family Medical Leave Act.
Photo courtesy Washington State Democrats: State Rep. Liz Berry listens to testimony about a bill she sponsored to expand Washington’s Paid Family Medical Leave Act.

The Washington State Senate is considering a bill that would expand paid family medical leave to more Washingtonians.

The measure, introduced in the state House of Representatives by Rep. Liz Berry (D-Seattle), comes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic’s destabilizing effect on the jobs market.

Washington’s Paid Family Medical Leave program was enacted in 2017. The program’s main purpose is to provide financial support — wage replacement — to employees who have to take leave from their work for family or medical reasons. These reasons can include illness, scheduled surgeries, caring for a close family member or maternity and paternity leave. The program also mandates that employers return an employee to their previous position after returning from PFML, provided the company has over 50 employees, and that the employee in question has been with the employer for more than a year and has worked a certain number of hours in the past 12 months.

Berry’s bill, House Bill 1073, would expand eligibility for the program and eliminate some restrictions on the job protection measures. It would expand aid to a large number of families — as many as 42,000 in Berry’s estimate — who would otherwise be ineligible for the program due to job loss or furlough as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“For me, this bill is common sense, as well as compassionate,” Berry said while promoting her bill on the floor of the House.

Berry and her co-sponsor, Rep. Noel Frame (D-Seattle) have a close connection to the PFML program: Both have had children in the last 12 months and thus received the program’s benefits. Joining a March 3 House debate over Zoom, Frame, who had her 7-month-old baby next to her, argued that the original bill did not anticipate the massive economic upheaval caused by the pandemic. She stated that expanding the PFML program’s benefits could have an economic effect comparable to last year’s stimulus checks.

“[Washingtonians] immediately spent that money in the community,” she said. “They paid their rent, they bought their groceries, they supported small businesses. And what happened? Our economy started to bounce back.”

Republicans in the Legislature were sympathetic to the aims of HB 1073 but balked at the high cost of the program.

“This bill is going to cost over $200 million for 18 months,” Rep. Larry Hoff (R-Vancouver) said. “Does it help people? Yes, it does. Is it expensive? It sure is.”

Republican legislators also raised concerns about the ability of the Employment Security Department, which administers the program. According to the ESD, the bill would require massive administrative changes “overnight,” leading Rep. Paul Harris (R-Vancouver) to worry aloud that the Legislature could be “sending out a false promise” if the bill leads to administrative problems at the ESD.

The House passed HB 1073 on March 3 on a mostly party-line vote. Rep. Mike Chapman (D-Port Angeles) voted with Republicans against the bill. The bill arrived in the Senate on March 6 and has worked its way through the Committee of Labor, Commerce and Tribal Affairs and the Ways and Means Committee. In an executive action on April 2, the Committee on Ways and Means approved the bill and passed it on to the Rules Committee. If it passes there, the Senate could vote to pass the bill as early as next week. The legislative session is due to end April 25.