With the start of the new year, Washington has rolled out a long-anticipated program promising paid family and medical leave to virtually every employee in the state — although some businesses may already feel the sting of a tax that funds the program.

Officials said efforts to enshrine such a program in state law have been underway for decades, but these ambitions were only realized and funded with a bill approved by lawmakers in 2017.

Clare DeLong, spokeswoman for Paid Family and Medical Leave in Washington’s Employment Security Department, said employers and employees have been paying into the program since January 2019. DeLong said the program is similar to insurance — employees and employers share the cost of diverting a sum equal to about 0.4 percent of an employee’s wage into the program. About two-thirds of this is deducted from the employee’s check and the remaining third is covered by the employer, DeLong said — though businesses with fewer than 50 employees may forgo the amount paid by the employer.

She said qualifying employees, or those who have worked 820 hours for a business, may have as much as 12 weeks of paid leave either for themselves or to care for a family member. In some extreme circumstances, that can be extended to 16 or even 18 weeks, she said.

“It’s partial wage replacement, so it’s one of the highest in the nation — up to 90 percent — but the scale is basically how much you earn,” DeLong said. “So low-wage workers will get up to that 90 percent, and then there’s a calculation that scales it based on how much you earn, and it’s capped at $1,000 a week.”

DeLong said so long as they’ve worked the requisite number of hours to qualify, the program applies to part-time, seasonal, and temporary workers, as well as full-time employees with few exceptions. She said leave is also available to new parents — new fathers and mothers may both take the full 12 weeks, even if they’re adopting.

“It doesn’t have to be used all at once, that’s true across the board,” she said. “So if I have chemotherapy treatments and I need two days off a week to get the treatments, I can work those other three days and just file for the hours — because it’s really a bank of hours.”

Marie Dymkoski, executive director of the Pullman Chamber of Commerce, said taking care of employees experiencing a personal or family emergency is consistent with local community values. She said it also takes some of the pressure off those employers who would have offered similar benefits out of a sense of responsibility to their workers.

“Especially in rural eastern Washington, we take care of our own, we’re very flexible,” she said. “Now the state is stepping up and saying, ‘We need to make this a priority,’ and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Dymkoski said in the past, when an employee had a health crisis or a complicated pregnancy, the chamber would do its best to find a way to work with that employee to ensure they were supported. However, for a small business, giving those employees paid time off made it difficult to hire someone else — even on a temporary basis — to ensure their work was covered. On the other hand, she said, she can also understand that some businesses may not have been thrilled with the new tax.

“Let’s play devil’s advocate — businesses are squeezed and every time another regulation, policy change, etc. happens, then it’s more out of the pocket of the employer,” she said. “I think there’s a misconception that if you own a business, you’re hand over fist in money, and that’s not true — many of our businesses have very, very tight margins as it is.”

More information about Washington’s paid medical and family leave program can be found at paidleave.wa.gov.

Scott Jackson can be reached at (208) 883-4636, or by email to sjackson@dnews.com.

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