OLYMPIA – Trying to ease a worker’s painful choice between a paycheck and caring for an ailing family member, the state Senate voted Wednesday to create a $250-a-week stipend for workers who take up to five weeks of family medical leave.
To pay for it, all workers of large and medium-size companies would pay a new tax of 2 cents for every hour they work, adding up to about $41.60 a year for a full-time worker.
“Workers should not have to choose between their job and their family,” said Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines. “When you have a sick baby, a new baby, a parent who is dying, a spouse who needs your day-to-day care, you need to be there. You need to be part of the process of healing.”
Critics, mostly Republicans, called it an unnecessary tax on workers.
“I feel in my heart that pretty soon, if this bill passes, that we’ll hear ‘People can’t live on $250 a week so we’re going to have to increase this tax,’ ” said Sen. Janea Holmquist, R-Moses Lake.
“I see this as the beginning of a very, very large bureaucracy,” said Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch. He and Mary Margaret Haugen of Camano Island were the only Democrats to vote against the proposal.
The measure now goes to the House, where Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, said she thought it has a good chance of passing.
“Especially when it comes to having a child, those first months are so critical for bonding with a newborn,” Kessler said. “It’s incredibly important that if nothing else, we do that.”
Under federal law, most workers in companies with more than 50 employees can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave and still have the right to their jobs.
If Senate Bill 5659 becomes law, many workers in Washington could draw the $250-a-week stipend for up to five weeks, starting in 2009. Washington would join California as the only states with paid family leave measures on the books. New Jersey and Massachusetts are considering similar measures, according to the national Partnership for Women and Families.
Employees of businesses with 25 or fewer employees would not be taxed, nor would they be eligible for the stipend.
Keiser, noting that she’s worked on similar measures for almost 20 years, called Wednesday’s vote “a giant step.”
“Every step of the way, we’ve heard predictions of doom and gloom,” she said. “At one point, I actually heard a lobbyist testify that they would no longer hire women if we had family leave. That actually was said at a public hearing.”
The state Office of Financial Management was working Wednesday to calculate the bill’s cost to the state after amendments. An initial estimate pegged it at about $100 million a year by the end of this decade. But opponents said the costs are likely to increase. One lawmaker called the measure “a new tax, a new entitlement and a new bureaucracy.”
“It’s more of Olympia saying this is what you need to have,” said Sheldon.
Gov. Chris Gregoire has not yet seen the bill, but is “generally supportive of the concept,” said her spokeswoman, Holly Armstrong.