Can the Family Medical Leave Act Be Saved?

Back in 2007, Washington passed the Family and Medical Leave Insurance Act, intended to give new parents and those caring for sick loved ones five weeks of paid time off – with compensation of up to $250 a week. The program was supposed to go into effect in 2009, but there’s been just one fairly substantial problem: the state hasn’t had the money to do it. Twice the implementation of the program has been delayed due to a lack of funding, once in 2009 and again in 2011.

Now, thanks to a bill passed out of the State Senate earlier this week by a vote of 27 to 21, the program could be altogether scrapped. But not if Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, can help it.

Introduced by Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, who has called the yet-to-be-funded Family and Medical Leave Insurance Act a “broken promise,” SB 5159 would eliminate the program if a source of funding cannot be found. That last bit of hope – the chance the program could survive is money is found for it – comes thanks to an amendment added by Hobbs, which would create a task force to hopefully identify this funding. Under the bill, Washington workers would still be eligible for up to five weeks off – they just wouldn’t be eligible for state compensation during this period.

Hobbs’ interest in saving the Family and Medical Leave Insurance Act goes further than his last-ditch amendment, however. The Lake Stevens Democrat has said he plans to introduce a bill that would include funding for the program. Hobbs says his vision for funding the program is much like the vision included in the bill originally passed out of the Senate with bipartisan support back in 2007, which collected two cents per hour from employees and put that money into an account to pay for family and medical leave. However, Hobbs says that aspect of the bill was lost in the House’s version, and replaced by – you guessed it - a task force that was to provide recommendations on where funding should come from. Though the task force provided such recommendations, Hobbs says, “the will of the legislature has been rather weak” to implement any of them. Thus, the program has remained unfunded.

“We have a situation where [the program] never gets funded, and we kick the can down the road,” says Hobbs. “The simple fact is, when people get sick, when your loved one gets sick, you shouldn’t have to lose your house or not feed your family because you’re taking care of them.”

Given the late stages of this year’s legislative session, Hobbs says there’s a decent chance he’ll wait until next year to introduce a bill to fund the Family and Medical Leave Insurance Act. Conversely, he indicated he may decide to go the referendum route, and put the matter straight to the voters, who Hobbs says could have a “more immediate impact.”

“The people might feel differently,” Hobbs says, comparing the will of voters to that of lawmakers in Olympia, who’ve been content to let the leave the program unfunded. “The voters aren’t going to feel pressured by special interests” like business or labor groups, Hobbs notes.

“I don’t want to do away with the program,” Hobbs says. “I want to fund it.”

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