On paper, Washington is the second state in the nation to pass paid family leave.
In reality, Washington’s paid family leave is but a shell of a program. State lawmakers have done little of the heavy lifting needed to ensure that new parents can collect benefits beginning next year.
Democratic leaders congratulated themselves on last year’s passage of paid family leave, but what emerged from the Legislature was little more than a flag in the ground of social policy.
A once-expansive proposal that covered workers caring for themselves, an ailing relative, a domestic partner or a new child emerged as a benefit available only to new parents. And still lawmakers couldn’t find a way to pay for it.
Sponsors had originally proposed a payroll tax, but in the end they settled for legislation that had no funding source. The Legislature passed off responsibility for figuring out how to pay and manage the program to a task force.
Nearly a year later, lawmakers aren’t much closer to having answers. The task force failed to identify a steady stream of funding, instead recommending that benefits be paid out of the state’s general fund for at least the first four years. Gov. Chris Gregoire quickly rebuffed that idea.
Lawmakers apparently don’t have it in them this year to come up with an alternative. Supporters of family leave recently conceded that they probably will wait until next year to figure out where to get the $40 million to $45 million a year to pay workers who take leave.
Meanwhile, the program is due to begin issuing checks Oct. 1, 2009 — a date that is looking less realistic all the time. The front-runner to manage the program, the Employment Security Department, has warned it would need 22 months of lead time.
The responsible thing to do would be to delay the start date, but then legislators might have to admit that they haven’t made the hard choices that are required. Better to take credit for a popular social program that has no natural enemies because no one has been asked to pay for it yet.
But as long as the Legislature procrastinates, family leave remains an empty promise — and lawmakers cannot legitimately claim they ensured that mothers and fathers don’t have to choose between paying the bills and bonding with their child.