Washington's paid family leave law covering workers who need time off starts in January -- but no payouts until 2020

In January, Washington will become one of just six states with laws mandating that employees get paid time off from work – and a job to return to – when they need to care for a sick relative, treat their own illness, give birth or take a child younger than 18 into their home through adoption or foster care.

Our state’s Paid Family & Medical Leave law is among the most liberal in terms of who it covers and for how long. Employees will begin contributing toward it in 2019. Payouts, however, won’t be available until 2020, so the fund has time to bulk up.

"We often call it the best-in-the-nation law," said Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, executive director of the family advocacy organization MomsRising, a major force behind the law which has been on the books since 2007, but unfunded until now.

"We are so excited that this is finally real!" Rowe-Finkbeiner said. "We've heard from families that have actually delayed having children because they were waiting for this to take effect."

Similar to employer-provided health insurance, workers will contribute a portion of each paycheck toward the leave program, and most employers will be required to contribute as well. The program is mandatory for all Washington businesses, nonprofits or government agencies with at least 50 workers, and for out-of-state employers that have employees here.

To qualify, an employee must have worked for their employer at least 820 hours in the prior year. The weekly benefit covers 12 weeks of time off (up to 18 weeks in special circumstances), with dollar amounts up to 90 percent of an employee’s wages – capped at $1,000 weekly.

Employees also get their jobs back after an approved leave if they have worked for their employer at least one year.

The premium is 0.4 percent, or .004, of gross wages. For example, a person earning $2,500 per paycheck would pay $10. Put another way, someone salaried at $50,000 annually, kicks in $200 each year – but at least $73.33 of that amount -- or a minimum of 37 percent -- comes from their employer; the remaining $126.67 is the employee’s responsibility. Employers may cover the entire cost.

Small businesses with fewer than 50 workers are not required to kick in anything. In those cases, the entire premium comes from employees.

"It’s a win-win for workers, our economy and for businesses – because it helps with retention," Rowe-Finkbeiner said.

The only employees exempt from participating are those who work for the federal government, federally recognized tribes, or anyone covered by a collective bargaining agreement that was in place as of Oct. 19, 2017.

Self-employed people are also exempt, though they may opt in. Those who do not contribute to the program are ineligible for its benefits.