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States Aim to Extend Reach of Family Leave

May 21, 2007

Washington state legislators enacted a paid family leave law this month, and as the movement gathers steam, similar pieces of legislation are wending their way through statehouses in Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Texas.

"It’s hard to say whether any of these [bills] are winnable or not," says Kate Kahan, director of work/family programs at the National Partnership for Women & Families. "But the fact that the conversation is happening at a local level in so many states is hopeful."

Starting in 2009, Washington’s law will allow workers up to five weeks of leave to take care of a newborn or a newly adopted child. Workers will be paid $250 a week. Companies with 25 or more workers will be required to hold employees’ jobs for them while they take paid leave.

Legislators could not agree on how to finance the program, so the law established a committee that will discuss the issue and report back to the Legislature by January 1, 2008.

The Washington state law was enacted over the objections of the Association of Washington Businesses, which cited the fact that a funding method has not been determined and the measure will place a burden on small businesses that have to hold positions open while employees take leave.

Washington became the second state, after California, to adopt a paid leave program.

California’s program, which was enacted in 2002, is more expansive than Washington’s. Since 2004, it has provided up to six weeks of paid leave for employees taking care of a sick family member or a new baby. California pays 55 percent of workers’ pay, to a maximum of $882 a week, and the program is financed by a 0.08 percent tax on workers’ wages.

At the national level, the Family and Medical Leave Act—enacted in 1992—allows workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for illness or to care for a sick relative, a new baby or a newly adopted child. The Department of Labor seems poised to revise its FMLA regulations, though; it recently issued a request for comments amid complaints from businesses that employees are abusing FMLA.

For example, a comment letter from the HR Policy Association cited problems with the FMLA’s intermittent leave provisions, which let employees take leave in increments.

"Our members inform us that last-minute leave episodes consistently disrupt efficient business operations and cause related administrative problems," the letter states. "In many cases, unpredictable absences occur on Mondays or Fridays and frequently involve employees that already have attendance problems, reinforcing the perception of abuse."

But there are also efforts under way on Capitol Hill to provide paid leave. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Connecticut, have reintroduced the Healthy Families Act, which would require companies with more than 15 employees to provide seven days of paid sick leave a year. And Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Connecticut, said in February that he plans to introduce a bill co-sponsored by Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, to provide six weeks of paid leave and expand the number of employees eligible for FMLA. The chances for federal legislation look better now that Democrats are in control of Congress.

Filed by Susan Kelly of Financial Week, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, e-mail editors@workforce.com.