In our view: Family Leave Bill is Flawed

The argument that we can afford it nowis just as wrong as the bill's rationale



ix yearSs ago, Washington’s Legislature passed a fatally flawed family-leave bill that, fortunately, has been postponed twice because the state can’t afford it. Now that green shoots of an economic recovery are showing, some lawmakers want to implement the bill, even expand it.This prompts us to make two observations. First, it’s still a bad bill. Expanding and implementing it will only make it worse. Second, the state is still broke. Actually, that’s an understatement. The state faces another huge budget shortfall as the Legislature enters its third week of the new session.

The 2007 state law was to have provided five weeks of paid time off — up to $250 a week — for parents of infants. Who would pay for it? All workers, with or without children, through a new payroll tax. Conceivably (no pun intended), even low-income workers would have to pay for family leave of high-income workers. As we editorialized at the time, that was a rather ghastly proposition. And one silver lining of the recession was that the state’s paid family-leave gift was shelved, unopened.

This year, according to a recent Associated Press story, state Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, has introduced a bill that would not only implement the flawed program but amplify it from five weeks of paid leave to 12 weeks, and from a cap of $250 a week to $1,000. A better bill sponsored by state Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, would repeal the old law. Braun explained: “It may have seemed like a good idea, but we don’t have the money to do it. We need to face the reality and deal with it.” (No lawmaker from the three legislative districts that serve solely Clark County is listed as a co-sponsor of either bill.)

Keiser said of Braun’s repeal measure: “It’s an appalling move at a time when middle-class families are having a hard time making things work.” We’re not so appalled, although we agree times are tough for almost everyone, especially middle-class families. All the more reason not to increase their taxes.

Yes, every working parent of a newborn deserves to have his or her job protected for a certain period, but that safeguard already is in place. Federal law requires employers with 50 or more workers to extend up to three months of unpaid leave to parents of newborns, as well as to workers who have personal or family illness or experience military leave, pregnancy, adoption or foster-care placement of a child. It’s a great law, helping countless workers.

Remember, also, that paid family leave is increasingly popular in private-sector worker benefits. This is where paid family leave belongs, in the competitive marketplace. Otherwise, as designed in Washington state, people who don’t need the money could receive it from people who can’t afford to pay.

State Sen. Janea Holmquist Newbry, R-Moses Lake, correctly calls the 2007 law an “empty promise. Instead of continually suspending it and dangling it out there … the more logical and responsible thing to do is to remove it off the books.”

Keiser’s bill is based on similar bills in California and New Jersey. That might not be the strongest endorsement of her efforts. Here in Washington, a bad bill that the state can’t afford remains, well, doubly doomed.