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Bill expanding access to Paid Family and Medical Leave wins final passage

A bill that will expand Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML) to employees who lost coverage due to the COVID-19 pandemic is headed to Governor Inslee’s desk after winning final approval from the House of Representatives Tuesday. In a 56-42 vote, the House voted to concur with amendments introduced in the Senate – the last hurdle it need to clear before final passage.

While Washington launched a new PFML program just months before the pandemic struck, eligibly was contingent on work requirements that many could not meet after getting laid off.

To be eligible for benefits under the program, employees must work at least 820 hours over a one year period. The program allows eligible employees to take paid time off to care for a sick family member or care for a newborn.

The bill’s prime sponsor, House Labor and Workplace Standards Committee Vice Chair, Rep. Liz Berry (D – Seattle), said the bill expands access to previously ineligible workers by allowing them to use their 2019 hours worked in lieu of their 2020 hours.

As a mom of two little kids, I know how vital this program is for working families in our state,” said Berry. “Paid Family and Medical Leave has improved the health and economic stability of working families across Washington. However, there are an estimated 42,000 workers who through no fault of their own have been excluded from this program. This bill ensures that those Washingtonians, who dutifully paid into the PFML system, get access to these benefits.”

While it was still in the Senate, the Ways & Means Committee amended the bill to reduce the time period in which an employee may be eligible for a pandemic leave assistance employee grant. The striker amendment introduced by the committee also removed the 520-hour alternate qualifying period; provides that certain employers with 150 or fewer employees are eligible for a grant to help cover the costs of employees on leave; and adds an emergency clause allowing the bill to go into effect immediately.

The grant for businesses with under 150 employees is intended to allow them to hire a temporary worker to fill in for employees on leave.

A one-time general fund appropriation of federal stimulus dollars will be the primary funding mechanism for the bill. The operating budgets being negotiated in both chambers currently contain $200 million for this purpose.

Rep. Jenny Graham (R – Spokane) broke with her caucus to support the bill while Reps. Mike Chapman (D – Port Angeles) and Amy Walen (D – Kirkland) voted against it.

For Berry, the bill is a normal response to an abnormal situation.

“It is simple, if you paid into the PFML program, you should not lose coverage as a result of the pandemic,” she said.

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