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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Paid family, sick leave program was already backed up several weeks – then coronavirus hit

Ann Churchwell knows how lucky she is – even in the aftermath of an injury that put her out of work.

The injury occurred when she was hand-delivering invitations to her annual Chinese New Year party to neighbors who don’t do email, slipped on some icy steps and fell.

She had some nasty bruises and broke her wrist.

She needed more than a month off work, since her job as an occupational therapist requires her to lift and assist patients every day, meaning she had to apply to the new Washington State Paid Family and Medical Leave program.

The program, for employers who opted into it, requires the employer to pitch in 35% and the state to cover the rest of partial wage replacements for Washington residents who get sick or need to leave work to care for a sick family member. New parents can also use the program for family leave.

Churchwell fell on Jan. 13, and she took the medical forms required to apply to the program to her doctor to get them signed, first for a week, then a month, then two more weeks, so Churchwell’s wrist could recover enough to lift the weight she does on the job.

She has yet to receive compensation from the state program, however, and has since returned to work.

Churchwell isn’t the only person who has experienced a long delay in accessing the program.

In 2019, Washington state taxpayers and some employers began contributing to the program, which went live at the start of 2020. The program, however, had a surge of applications that has just continued to pile up.

The Employment Security Department estimates about a 10-week turnaround time for applications, after it received more than 30,000 applications in the first six weeks of 2020.

To help mitigate concerns for people who were at risk of not making rent or those with financial hardship, the department recently created an application for expedited processing for people who have been waiting for four weeks to hear back on their application who are also facing eviction, inability to pay for utilities or other imminent bills they could not afford.

The Employment Security Department hired more staff to process the applications that were piling up, said Clare DeLong, communications manager for the Paid Family and Medical Leave. Those staff members started this month, and she anticipates more new hires coming on board soon.

“We anticipate those numbers will drop, presuming we don’t see another spike in application volume,” DeLong said.

DeLong acknowledged the wait times are not where the department wants to be, but now with the ripple effects of COVID-19 spreading in the state, the Employment Security Department has seen a massive increase in applications for unemployment, which go through a separate program.

The paid leave program cannot be used for those under quarantine, but a person who contracts COVID-19 might be eligible to apply with health care provider approval, although the state’s paid leave program is for serious health conditions only. The paid leave and unemployment programs cannot be used simultaneously.

Churchwell kept up with her monthly bills, despite not getting paid by the state, because her employer continued to pay her the 35% of her wage replacement. She was worried, however, since she had heard nothing from the state that her employer might stop sending her checks, too.

“The choice to come back was pretty much all about I don’t know if I’m going to have that 35% (wage replacement), and I could use some part of a paycheck soon,” Churchwell said.

Churchwell acknowledges how lucky she is because she had paid time off she could use and some savings to keep her whole financially.

Others might not be so fortunate, she said. Between the forms her doctor needed to sign, the online account access and the process to get all of her paperwork in order, Churchwell said it could be challenging for someone who didn’t have access to a scanner or a computer.

Churchwell is positive and supportive of the concept of the program, however, and was thankful for her support system that got her through it.

“I am just so grateful that I do have something saved, that I have friends that say things like, ‘How can we help you?’ at church,” she said.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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2020 has been a stressful year for myriad reasons.