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Planning family or medical leave next year? Here’s a short primer

Caring for a family member experiencing an illness is covered under the Washington Paid Family and Medical Leave benefits. (Shutterstock)
Caring for a family member experiencing an illness is covered under the Washington Paid Family and Medical Leave benefits. (Shutterstock)

To get more bonding time with a newborn or to handle serious medical issues, workers in Washington state will have new options next year for paid time off.

Beginning in 2020, those employees can tap the new Washington Paid Family and Medical Leave benefits, a statewide insurance program being funded through employee and employer contributions. Premiums started coming out of paychecks this week.

For eligible workers, the benefits generally offer 12 weeks in a year of paid time off for births and adoptions, a worker’s serious medical condition or providing such care for a family member. There are provisions for 16 weeks under a combination of family and medical leave, or 18 weeks for pregnancy complications.

Joining California, New Jersey, Rhode Island and New York, Washington will be the fifth state to offer paid family and medical leave employee benefits.

Before taking those, you’ll need to understand what is required to qualify. It’s also designed for partial wage replacement depending on what you make, although low-income workers may collect at least 90 percent of weekly income.

Here’s a short primer on the new family leave law:

Who is eligible?

To qualify, you must have logged 820 hours or more of work in a qualifying period preceding the requested leave. A state website explaining the new program says a benefit can’t be taken without a qualifying event:

Care and bond after a baby’s birth or the placement of a child younger than 18;

Care for a family member experiencing an illness or medical event;

Certain military-connected events;

Care for yourself related to an illness or medical event.

In most cases, the Family Leave Act will run concurrently with the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, and the enforcement rights are under the federal law.

Can you opt out?

Nearly everyone who works in Washington will participate in paying into the program. Exceptions include self-employed or federal employees, workers for a federally recognized tribe, and someone subject to a collective bargaining agreement existing on or before Oct. 19, 2017, the state’s website says.

What does it cost?

Like most insurance programs, it is funded through premiums. As it’s set up for 2019, that means premiums of 0.4 percent of wages collected, with 63 percent paid by employees and 37 percent paid by employers.

Employment Security Department is overseeing the program. The state’s information lists that if your paycheck is $2,000 in gross wages, about $5 will be taken out.

Recent news articles also give the example that if you make $50,000 a year, you’d pay about $2.44 a week, while the employer would pay about $1.41 a week, for a weekly benefit of about $778.

Most employers now are required to withhold premiums from their employee’s paychecks. A job site with fewer than 50 employees isn’t required to contribute the employer portion of the premium but must collect the employee portion, and follow state reporting requirements. There are employer options to participate voluntarily.

Companies that already offer a family leave program can apply for a waiver, as long as the benefit offered is at least equivalent to the state program.

What does it pay?

It’s paid leave but don’t expect full pay. Washington’s law includes partial wage replacement, and your benefits will depend on how much you earn in a typical week.

A Dec. 30, 2018 Associated Press story reported that weekly benefits under the new law will be calculated based on a percentage of the employee’s wages and the state’s weekly average wage, now at $1,190. The weekly amount paid out will be capped at $1,000 a week.

Workers who earn less than the state’s weekly average wage would get 90 percent of their income.

If you work in Washington but live in Idaho?

The benefit program applies as long as you work in Washington state and receive Washington state wages.

If you work part time or self-employed?

People who work less than a 40-hour week can qualify as long as they have logged 820 hours or more in a qualifying period.

Self-employed individuals who elect coverage will pay only the employee share of the premiums.

How do you file a claim?

To seek benefits in 2020, you will set up a customer account with Employment Security Department to apply for and manage your claim. Workers will need to give employers advanced notification, in many cases 30 days prior, or make reasonable effort to schedule treatment that doesn’t disrupt operations.

ESD says more information will come out soon regarding how to file a claim.

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