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State Senator Karen Keiser

Democratic state senator Karen Keiser has been working to get paid family leave in Washington for roughly 15 years. Technically, she did. In 2007 the state passed a family leave insurance program…then the recession hit and the legislature never funded it. How frustrated was she?

“I cannot tell you,” she says, following an epic sigh.

A lot has happened in 10 years. A handful of states have implemented paid family leave, and popular opinion has shifted toward support, in conjunction with awareness that the U.S. is abysmal in this policy area compared to the rest of the world.

In Washington, lawmakers seem hopeful that this may be the year the wheel finally turns. “For the first time ever, business interests came to the table and signed in not opposed and made suggestions,” Keiser says. “That is a breakthrough in my world.”

Bills have been introduced this year on both sides of the aisle, one by Republican senator Joe Fain, and one by Keiser with a house companion bill by Democratic senator June Robinson. Neither senate bill has yet passed out of committee, and the deadline is Friday; Fain says he and Keiser are filing a title-only bill today to ensure the discussion can continue. Robinson’s house bill is now in appropriations.

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State Senator Joe Fain.

Here’s the deal: The reality is both proposed programs are robust compared to what the 2007 bill offered ($250 a week for five weeks), and there is clearly bipartisan support for family leave of some kind. But these bills differ on key points.

Keiser’s bill is much more generous to employees, with more weeks off, higher wage reimbursement, and a shared burden for funding the program between employers and employees. Supporters say the bill is based on years of reviewing state paid family leave in Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, and California, and addressing what works well and what gaps remain.

Advocates of Fain’s bill say Keiser’s places too heavy a burden on employers at a time when they are coping with two other new mandates—a minimum wage hike and paid sick leave—and point to the total stall of progress on paid family leave as a reason to be less aggressive.

Fain says he thinks they can find a middle ground.

“Right now, employees don’t get 24 weeks, or four weeks, or four days. They get zero. I don’t want to come up short when we’ve got some really good options on the table that are significantly more helpful to working families than current law,” he says.

But some say they’ve been there, done that, as far as trying to implement a softer policy that doesn’t truly meet the needs of families in order to gain traction.

“It’s really important that we start with the right foundation,” says Marilyn Watkins of the Economic Opportunity Institute, who has been studying paid family leave in other states for years. “Let’s build this right from the start.”

The good news is that both bills have funding mechanisms written into the law to avoid a repeat of 2007. “I will not go down that road again,” Keiser says.

Here’s some main differences between the bills. This gets a little nitty-gritty:

How long

The Keiser/Robinson versions provide up to 26 weeks of paid family leave, while Fain’s provides up to 12. Twenty-four may seem like a lot until you realize that other states with paid family leave—meant to give parents a chance to bond with and care for a new child—also provide paid disability leave, which applies to serious health issues and would cover a woman who has pregnancy complications. Taking that into account, California provides up to 52 weeks, Rhode Island up to 30, and New York up to 26. Keiser’s bill would also add 12 weeks of disability leave. Turning for a moment to the rest of the globe ... in most of Europe and Canada, there’s paid maternity leave from six months to a year.

How much

In both bills, the weekly reimbursement is based on an employee’s wages. Of note, Keiser’s provides a progressive benefit, meaning lower-income workers would receive a higher percentage of their weekly wage, up to 90 percent.

Watkins says they saw a gap in state programs where workers making minimum wage did not take needed leave; they were barely making ends meet on their full wages and couldn’t get by on a small portion of it. Wages below half the state’s average weekly wage ($1,082 in 2015) would be reimbursed at 50 percent, wages below at 90. The benefit would be capped at $1,000. Examples: If you make $541 per week, you would get $487. If you make $1,000, you would get $716, and if you make $2,000 you would get $1,000. Fain’s bill pays up to half of an employee’s average weekly wage at first with a cap of half the state’s average weekly wage ($541), eventually building to about two-thirds with a cap of 67 percent of the state’s average weekly wage ($725).

Who it covers

Keiser’s bill covers all employees who have worked 340 hours during the qualifying year. Fain’s covers employees who have worked at least 26 consecutive weeks, and part-time employees are eligible after 175 days of regular employment.

Who pays

This is a big one. Keiser’s bill splits the funding between employers and employees 50-50 through premiums at .255 percent of wages (eventually .51 percent), while Fain’s bill is funded purely through employee payroll deductions.This is a sticking point for business owners who say the bill is too much of a burden. Fain says it’s about being realistic as far as what employers can afford right now.

For the record, Seattle City Council member Lorena González  told Publicola this week that she would not support a bill that doesn’t at least share the burden between employers and employees, as she turns her attention to paid family leave in Seattle’s private sector.

When it happens

In Keiser’s, the 26 weeks will be required by October 1, 2019; the 12 weeks of disability by October 1, 2020. Fain’s is much more drawn out: 8 weeks by 2020, 12 weeks and the full two-thirds benefit by 2023.

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