Will Paid Family Leave Become a Reality in Seattle?

City employees have it; now council member Lorena González sets sights on paid family leave in the private sector.

By Rianna Hidalgo February 14, 2017

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Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez

Now that city employees will get up to 12 weeks of paid family leave, there’s that looming question: what about everyone else?

On Monday the Seattle City Council unanimously passed legislation providing city employees up to 12 weeks of paid time off when they become new parents, including adoption, foster care, and legal guardianship. It also authorized four weeks of paid leave to care for a sick family member. The policy is retroactive to January 1, so those who have qualified since the beginning of the year will be able to access the benefit—a likely relief to city employees who have recently given birth.

Moving right along. Now that the city has reached its benchmarks for city employees (the new policy is an increase from four weeks of paid family leave), council member Lorena González says it’s time to take a look at the rest of Seattle. She wanted the city to lead by example, she says, but her primary goal has always been to expand paid family leave for all workers. She hopes to have legislation together by August, before the council goes into budget discussions.

“I think Seattle is in a unique position because we are one of the few cities that have the political will and desire to pass the policy,” González says.

Her office is in the process of conducting research—meeting with business owners about their concerns, consulting with labor representatives, and surveying employers and workers around what benefits are already provided. She expects that survey by March. 

A handful of states have paid family leave, including California. Last year, San Francisco became the first city to pass its own policy mandating fully paid leave for six weeks (Cali requires that employees receive 55 percent of their wages for up to six weeks).

If Seattle were to implement paid family leave, it would be slightly different, in that it has nothing to piggyback off of at the state level. Technically, the state passed paid family leave in 2007, but the legislature never funded it. For fun, go to the L&I webpage on pregnancy and parental leave: “Is there paid maternity leave in Washington? No. … The Washington State Legislature has not implemented the 2007 Family Leave Insurance program.” 

There seems to be some momentum this year around new paid family leave bills proposed in the legislature (more on this to come). But González says she doesn’t want to rely on that best-case scenario. If Seattle can raise the minimum wage to $15 well before the state raises its minimum wage, she says, we can do this too. 

“Seattle has to be the one on the leading edge to push the conversation forward and make sure we send a signal back to the state that when they are unwilling to act, we stand at the ready to pass policies that are good for working families,” she says.

Broken-record time: it never hurts to remember where we fall as a nation in the global context. The U.S. is the only industrialized nation without some kind of universal paid maternity leave, despite research showing it reduces infant mortality, improves access to healthcare for infants, has benefits for childhood bonding and breast-feeding, and increases mental health. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends at least six months of paid parental leave.

If you think paid family leave will be bad for business owners, look at data from Cali, where paid family leave started in 2004. In a survey by the Center for Economic and Policy Research Institute about 90 percent of business owners said the program had a positive or neutral effect on profitability and performance. 

“I think it’s really important for people to understand that paid family and medical leave policies are not just good for workers, they are good for our economy,” González says. “You often hear that when you pass labor standards, they end up being job killers, and people will have to put shutters up and do business in Shoreline or Tukwila. The reality is in places that have had paid family policies in place, they have fared very well.”

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