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Originally published Thursday, January 25, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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With more power, can state Dems pass family-leave bill this time?

The measure, which would use a payroll tax to grant workers up to 5 weeks off, went down 2 years ago. It faces a few obstacles this time, too.

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

OLYMPIA — Democratic lawmakers are taking another crack at passing one of the nation's most generous paid-family-leave benefits.

Legislation introduced Wednesday would give Washington employees up to five weeks of paid family medical leave each year. Workers could use it for personal sick leave, to bond with a newborn or adopted child, or to care for an ailing relative or domestic partner.

To cover the new benefit, which initially would be capped at $250 per week, the bill would require a payroll tax of 2 cents an hour per employee — about $40 a year for a full-time employee.

The legislation — House Bill 1658 — is nearly identical to a proposal that Democrats tried unsuccessfully to pass two years ago.

Democrats have since expanded their majorities in Olympia. And the bill is a top priority for some of their closest allies, including labor unions, human-services advocates and women's groups.

"I think it has a much better chance this year," said Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, D-Seattle, the bill's prime sponsor.

Paid family leave


Proposed state law: House Bill 1658 would assess a new payroll tax to fund up to five weeks of paid family medical leave a year for all employees in Washington.

The current law: Federal law requires businesses with 50 or more employees to give workers up to 12 weeks of medical leave a year, but it doesn't require paid leave.

Contact lawmakers: www1.leg.wa.gov/legislature or 800-562-6000

But Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have not indicated whether the legislation will be a high priority. They say they are more focused on other health-care issues, such as expanding state insurance coverage for children.

While three Republicans have signed on as co-sponsors to Dickerson's bill, other GOP lawmakers and business leaders say the legislation is not needed.

"The small-business community is already stepping up to the plate to provide for their employees," including leave arrangements when necessary, said Carolyn Logue, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business.

It's true that many businesses already provide paid medical leave, said Marilyn Watkins, policy director for the Seattle-based Economic Opportunity Institute, a labor-backed think tank.

But she said some small businesses don't offer any leave, let alone paid leave. Workers in those situations are too often forced to choose between losing their job and staying home to care for a newborn or an ill parent, she said.

In 2005, about 71 percent of Washington businesses offered paid vacation leave to full-time employees and 44 percent offered paid sick leave, according to the state Employment Security Department.

Under existing federal law, businesses with 50 or more employees are required to give workers up to 12 weeks of medical leave a year for themselves or to take care of family members. But the law does not require paid leave.

A few states provide disability pay that includes women who take time off to care for a newborn, but California is the only state with a broader paid-family-leave program.

Approved in 2004, the California law allows employees to take up to six weeks of paid leave, which this year is capped at $882 per week. The vast majority of claims so far have been by new mothers.

Several other states are looking at adding paid-family-leave programs.

"This issue is gaining momentum and women across the political spectrum are saying this is important," said Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner of Kirkland, director of MomsRising.org, a new national women's advocacy group.

Under Dickerson's bill, which would apply to all employers, the paid leave would be covered through a state-run insurance program, similar to unemployment insurance. All employers would be required to collect the 2-cent-per-hour tax, but businesses could deduct all or a portion of the tax from employee paychecks.

The program would initially cost more than $70 million per year, according to the most recent state projections.

Critics argue that once the program is in place, the cost would grow steadily — due to inflation and political pressures to increase the benefit — and add to Washington's reputation as an expensive place to do business.

Rep. Cary Condotta said it should be each employee's responsibility to set aside enough money to be able to take time off from work.

"This wouldn't be an issue if people were saving what people in most industrialized countries do," said Condotta, R-East Wenatchee.

Instead of passing what he calls a "socialized savings account," Condotta said, the Legislature should work with businesses to come up with personal savings incentives.

But Dickerson and others said it's unrealistic to expect most low-income workers to save enough to be able to take much time off work.

"We are talking about people who often have to work two jobs just to make ends meet," she said.

Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or rthomas@seattletimes.com

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