Support builds for bill giving 5 paid weeks of family leave

OLYMPIA — A bill to give workers up to five weeks of paid family leave — which would be one of the most generous benefits in the nation — was approved Monday by the Senate budget committee.

The vote came as a coalition of labor unions, women's groups and other organizations has stepped up pressure on lawmakers to finally pass the measure after six years of failed attempts.

"This has a lot more momentum than it's had in the past," said Marilyn Watkins, policy director for the Seattle-based Economic Opportunity Institute, a labor-backed think tank.

Even opponents, who have blocked similar proposals in recent years, believe the bill is likely to pass.

"It will be hard to stop this time," said Don Brunell, president of the Association of Washington Business.

However, similar assessments of the bill's chances in 2005 proved misplaced. It passed the Senate that year but died in the House.

Federal law already requires businesses with 50 or more employees to give workers up to 12 weeks of medical leave per year for themselves or to take care of an ailing relative. But it does not require paid leave.

Supporters have been trying since 2001 to expand Washington's family-leave law.

Under the legislation now afoot in Olympia — Senate Bill 5659 — all workers would be entitled to up to five weeks of paid family leave per year. They could use it to stay home with a newborn baby or newly adopted child, to care for a sick relative or domestic partner, or as personal sick leave.

Payments would be capped initially at $250 per week, a figure that would grow with inflation. To cover the benefits, the state would impose a payroll tax of 2 cents an hour per employee — about $40 per year. The bill would allow employers to deduct the tax from employee paychecks.

The program, which would take effect in 2009, is projected eventually to cost about $100 million per year.

It would be the nation's second-highest family-leave benefit, behind California. Several other states, however, also are considering expanding their programs.

Brunell predicted that, once in place, the new benefit would grow rapidly.

"It's not going to stop at $250 and five weeks," Brunell said. "I think it will go much higher down the road."

Business leaders also argue that the legislation creates a one-size-fits-all approach that doesn't leave employers enough flexibility in setting up leave policies.

Small businesses are especially worried because the legislation would require them to hold jobs open for workers who take leave — which they are not required to do under existing law.

But Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner of Kirkland, director of, a new national women's advocacy group, said the United States is one of the few industrialized countries that does not require paid family leave.

"It's a national embarrassment," she said.

During the past 10 days, MomsRising members from this state have sent more than 2,400 e-mail messages urging lawmakers to approve the legislation.

Last week, supporters also tried to prod lawmakers by releasing recent poll results indicating widespread support for the legislation.

The proposal is supported by virtually all demographic groups and even has strong support in Eastern Washington, according to the poll, which was funded partly by the House and Senate Democratic campaign committees.

Some lawmakers have suggested sending the issue to voters as a referendum. But Sen. Karen Keiser, the prime sponsor in the Senate, said she thinks the Legislature needs to pass the law on its own.

"It's our job to show leadership," said Keiser, D-Kent.

Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire has not yet taken a position on the bill.

Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or