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Pushing forward the paid time off conversation in Seattle



Photo: Bridget Coila

 

Adjusting to a new baby is tough for most parents — but do they have a right to expect paid time off?

The answer is “yes” in every part of the developed world — except the United States. Every major country ensures paid maternity leave and many countries offer paid leave for fathers, too.

But we’re starting to make some inroads.

Seattle received national attention when Mayor Ed Murray and Seattle City Councilwoman Jean Godden recently proposed a plan to offer city employees with a new child up to four weeks of paid parental leave. In April, the Seattle City Council voted unanimously to approve the benefit. Beginning May 17, the benefit will be made available to all regular employees six months after their hire date.

No other Northwest city offers paid parental leave, and only a few major cities nationwide do, including Chicago and San Francisco.

King County Councilman Rod Dembowski raised the stakes when he introduced legislation that would give county employees up to 12 weeks in paid leave after a birth, adoption or placement of a foster child. The council adopted the motion in April, leaving County Executive Dow Constantine with the task of developing a plan to implement the 100 percent paid leave. The new parental leave policy will take effect no later than January 1, 2016.

Four weeks of paid leave for city employees is a great start but not enough, said Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, the executive director of MomsRising.org, a national grassroots advocacy group promoting policies that support family economic security. She called it “a penny-wise and pound-foolish” decision to forgo paid leave because taxpayers spend more on food stamps and other entitlements when working parents are forced to quit their jobs. It’s better for businesses too, Rowe-Finkbeiner said, because they spend less on recruitment and training by retaining these workers.

“It’s time for this conversation to happen in Seattle,” she said. “We have one of the largest wage gaps [between men and women] in the Seattle area, and one thing that will lower that gap is having paid family leave.”

State Rep. June Robinson also applauds Seattle’s measure — and agrees that it doesn’t go far enough. This past winter, the Everett Democrat sponsored a bill that would implement up to 12 weeks of paid family leave for public and private employees in Washington for the birth or adoption of a child and for major illnesses.

“This is a benefit every single person who is employed in this country could and will use at some point in their lives,” Robinson said. “It’s not just a women’s issue, it’s a family and a worker’s issue. We all have circumstances when we need a break to deal with a family crisis.”

California, Rhode Island and New Jersey offer paid family leave funded by payroll taxes that go into existing disability insurance programs. Washington passed a family leave plan in 2007, but didn’t include a way to pay for it. Robinson’s bill would have paid for family leave with employer and worker contributions, but it died in committee. She plans to bring it back next year.

President Obama even raised the issue during his State of the Union address this year, when he described paid sick leave and paid maternity leave as important economic matters. In January, he gave federal employees with a new child the ability to take six weeks of paid leave.

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act ensures up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for childbirth and family illnesses. But exemptions for companies that are too small and for employees who work too few hours prevent many people from using the benefit. Even if a family does qualify, they may not be able to afford to take unpaid time off.

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