If you work in Washington state and plan to have a baby or adopt a child after January 1, 2020, you’re in luck. While it won’t go into effect for a while, a new Washington state law will be the most generous paid maternity leave and paid paternity leave benefit in the country. If you’re planning your family and have questions about the Washington Family Leave Act (WFLA), check out our guide below:
Why does the Washington state website say there’s no paid maternity leave in Washington?
Great question. The state information site is intended to give the correct information for folks who need it now. Presumably, when the new law goes into effect, they’ll amend it. But if you read the state site, don’t panic. Yes, paid maternity leave will go into effect on the first day of 2020.
How many weeks of paid maternity leave can I get?
Well, your employer might offer paid maternity leave as a part of your benefits package. If not, you will still receive up to 12 weeks of partial pay for time you take off to bond with a new child, thanks to the new Washington maternity leave law.
That’s not all. If you need additional time to care for a sick family member or for your own serious medical issue, you can receive a total of 16 weeks of partially paid leave per year. And if you suffer pregnancy-related medical complications, you’re entitled to up to 18 weeks of partially paid leave. That’s why the law is considered the most generous in the country.
If the paid leave offered by your employer is more generous than the state program (say, 16 weeks of fully paid leave), then that’s what you’ll receive.
How much will I be paid?
Washington will use a sliding scale to calculate your paid maternity leave benefit. First, the state will start with a calculation of its workers’ average weekly wage, currently $1,082. The law provides lower-income workers—those who earn less than the state’s average weekly wage of $1,082—with 90 percent of their income. Higher-income workers will be paid 50 percent of their wages for any income they earn above that amount (capped at $1,000 per week).
That means that, if you’re a high earner, you will receive a lower percentage of your salary. For example, according to the Washington Work and Family Coalition, an employee who earns $54,000 per year would receive $736 per week, or 71 percent of her salary. Another who earns $85,000 per year would earn $1,000 per week, or 61 percent of her salary.
Even though employers are not required to pay more than their share of the premiums for the new state paid leave insurance program, the expectation is that many employers will adjust their paid leave policies to supplement the state paid leave, says Katie Chamberlain, a Seattle attorney with MacDonald Hoague & Bayless, who specializes in pregnancy discrimination and medical leave. For example, Chamberlain explains, if an employee would only be entitled to 61 percent of her income under the state plan, some competitive employers might supplement the state pay with the other 39 percent.
Do ALL companies have to provide leave or are some exempt?
According to Chamberlain, the paid leave provisions will apply to all employees who have worked 820 hours in Washington during the previous four quarters, even independent contractors and self-employed persons (who must take steps to opt in). And it’s portable from employer to employer. So a worker need not have worked the requisite 820 hours with a single employer to qualify for benefits.
However, the Washington leave law does not require small employers (with fewer than 50 employees) to hold your job while you are on leave. In other words, if you work for a small business, you’ll be paid for your leave, but you may not have a job to come back to. You’ll definitely want to discuss this issue with your employer before you go out on leave. But other employment laws may make it unlawful for your employer to terminate you for taking leave. So, if your employer won’t hold your job or you lose your job after taking leave, you should consult an attorney to determine whether your rights were violated.
When can my leave start? When I'm still pregnant?
If you're having complications that limit your ability to work and your healthcare provider certifies that you have a “serious health condition” as defined by the new leave law, you will be entitled to unlimited leave, up until you deliver. You might also be able to access paid disability leave benefits through your employer. These privately funded benefits typically pay a portion of your salary.
Even if it’s not paid leave, under a Washington state regulation, employers are required to allow pregnant employees to take leave if they have pregnancy-related sickness or disabilities. This pregnancy disability leave is unlimited—the amount of time a woman takes off is decided by her doctor. And, if your employer provides paid sick leave for other types of disabilities or illnesses, it has to pay you, too. In other words, says Chamberlain, employers must treat pregnant women with disabilities or illnesses the same as other sick or disabled employees.
One more right you should note: Washington also passed a new law this year that expands the rights of pregnant workers to receive reasonable accommodations from their employers, if needed.
Do I need to take my leave all at once?
Actually, you have 12 months from the birth or adoption of your child to take it all. According to Lynn Daggett, the Smithmoore P. Myers Chair and Professor of Law at Gonzaga University School of Law in Spokane, while the WFLA doesn’t speak to intermittent leave, it doesn’t say you can’t break it up. Because FMLA allows you to take leave in increments, Washington will likely allow that approach, too.
If you do take your paid leave in increments, remember that it’s “use it or lose it”—if you don’t use it by the end of the 12-month period, it’s gone. This policy might come in handy if you and your spouse decide to take turns; maybe you’ll take four weeks, he’ll take four weeks, and then you’ll switch back. It also comes in handy if you need time off for a child’s illness or to care for another close family member (both of which are covered under the law).
Can I use only part of the benefit or is it all or nothing?
If you want to go back to work before the full leave is up, you can use part of the benefit. Some workers choose to return to work early if they can’t afford to live on just a portion of their wages. Know this, though: The Washington law is groundbreaking because it gives low-wage workers almost all of their wages. That was intentional—the state legislature wanted to be sure that all new parents could manage to take time off work to bond with a new child.
If you do decide to go back to work before you’ve used all of your leave time, you can still hold the rest in reserve until 12 months after your baby is born or your adoption takes place.
Can my spouse or partner get parental leave?
For sure. The law will apply to women and men, for both straight and same-sex households. Many families decide to have one parent take leave first, then have the other parent start leave when the first parent returns to work. If you both work for the same company, you’ll also each get 12 weeks.
What if I adopt, foster or use a surrogate?
Washington will pay you part of your salary if you add to your family through pregnancy, adoption, surrogacy or foster parenting. You just have to provide appropriate documentation (think birth certificate or adoption papers, for example).
Does it cover anything besides welcoming a new child?
Washington’s law will be the most inclusive in the country. It will cover bonding with a new child, but it also will kick in when you’re caring for a close family member who’s seriously ill. Close family members include parents, children and spouses, as well as domestic partners, grandparents, grandchildren and even siblings. What’s more, you will be able to take leave if you need to care for a family member while another is serving in the military.
If you become ill yourself, you will be covered under the new Washington law if you need medical leave due to a “serious health condition.”
Can I combine this with the Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or any short-term disability benefits I may be entitled to?
If you are also eligible for FMLA (which offers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave), you must take leave concurrently. The good news is that FMLA provides you with job protection; under the federal law, your employer is required to hold your job for you until you return from maternity leave, or give you a substantially equal position, as long as you return within 12 weeks and have followed procedures correctly.
If my company pays for some portion of leave, does the state law cover the rest up to 100 percent of my salary?
Right now, there isn’t a clear answer to this question, Daggett says. The state government is in a “listening” phase, which means that it is still working out answers to some questions like this. However, Daggett and Chamberlain explain, employers are likely to look at their own paid leave policies and make modifications to help fill a portion of the gap between the paid leave benefit and the worker’s actual wage.
Is the leave pay taxed?
Daggett and Chamberlain agree on this one: probably yes, but we just don’t know. Washington doesn’t have a state income tax, but the IRS might tax the paid leave benefit. Both experts believe that, because the paid maternity leave benefit is similar to an unemployment benefit, it will be taxed.
What do I have to do to get the money and by when? How am I paid?
The new Washington law will impose a seven-day waiting period before you can file for benefits; on the eighth day following the birth or adoption of your child, you’ll need to provide proof that you’re eligible—usually you’ll upload a birth certificate or adoption papers to a dedicated website—and a certification form from your healthcare provider. By law, the state will have to pay you within 14 calendar days after you file your application. Note that, because the law is still a ways off, we don’t yet know exactly how you’ll get paid (by check?) or how you’ll file your claim.
Are there any monetary caps on the benefit annually or during one's lifetime?
The Washington law doesn’t impose any monetary caps, but it does have weekly caps on how much you’ll be paid. No matter how much you earn, the highest benefit you can receive is $1,000/week (an amount that will be revisited yearly). As for your lifetime? No limit. You can have nine kids, and you’ll get paid maternity leave each time unless you’ve used up your paid leave benefit for the year.
Do I still receive my benefits while I'm out?
Definitely. The new Washington law requires your employer to continue your benefits as though you’re in the workplace. That means that you are still eligible to accrue seniority or benefits if your employer allows for accrual for other forms of relief. You are also entitled to continue receiving health insurance benefits during leave, but you’ll still have to pay any contribution your employer requires.
When does/did it go into effect? If I've already given birth, am I entitled to any of it?
The new law goes into effect on January 1, 2020. Unfortunately, if you’re pregnant now or have already given birth, it won’t help you. But if you’re expanding your family in two years or so, be sure to note that date! Wonder how many babies will be born in Washington state right after?
How is this paid for?
The Washington paid family leave will be financed by deductions from employee wages and employer contributions. Beginning in 2019, pay will be subject to a .4 percent payroll tax. That means that, if you make $50,000 per year, you’ll pay $2.42 a week into a state-managed fund, while your employer will pay $1.42. Smaller employers (those with under 50 workers) will be exempt from paying in, but employees will still have to do so. And for those businesses that offer employer-paid maternity leave? They can apply for an exemption and opt out of the program altogether.
Where do I go if I have more questions?
The best place to start is always with your company’s Human Resources department, but be prepared for them not to know very much yet. As you might guess, the new law almost certainly is not in your current employee handbook! In fact, it’s pretty hard to find good information about the paid maternity leave law, because implementation is still years away. If you’d like to read the law in full, click here, or if you’d like to bookmark the Washington state page where the Department of Labor will update its information next year, click here. Otherwise, revisit this page toward the middle of 2019.