There are many reasons for which one might need some extra time off of work. Perhaps the arrival of a new child is imminent, one’s spouse is injured during a military deployment, or a loved one has fallen ill or been involved in an accident.
Whatever the reason, managing medical appointments, prescription refills, and errands leaves little room to contemplate the logistics of getting time off. This is where Washington state’s Paid Family and Medical Leave Act (PFMLA) comes in.
A state law poised to take effect in January 2020, PFMLA requires businesses to grant employees 12 weeks (or more, depending on specific circumstances) of paid leave annually for specific health- or family-related needs, such as the birth of a child, the adoption or foster care of a child, a serious health condition affecting oneself or a family member, and supporting an active duty military family member who is deployed to a foreign country.
When an employee takes this leave, the law safeguards most of those individuals from termination or discrimination, and continues an employee’s health benefits while he or she is away from work.
Federal employees and certain tribes are exempt from PFMLA.
The state law differs from its federal counterpart, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which was enacted in 1993, in that time off is paid rather than unpaid. Once PFMLA is in place, employees complete a form online and, if approved, receive a check from the state for up to 90 percent or $1,000 of that individual’s pay. Washington is one of only four other states (and the District of Columbia) that has launched such an act.
Many businesses already are feeling its impact. On Jan. 1, employers should have begun collecting premiums for these benefits.
According to the state, employees are responsible for .253 percent out of .4 percent of their gross pay, with employers making up the difference. However, employers may pay the full amount if they desire.
Shannon Lawless, a Seattle attorney who has been busy counseling her business clients and working directly with the Washington Employment Security Department, said she is concerned many employers have either not heard about, or have not yet begun, collecting the necessary premiums from employees.
“The main thing I want employers to know right now is that they are going to owe premiums at the end of (the first quarter),” Lawless said. “By April 30, they are going to have to log in and pay premiums on the gross wages of their employees. I don’t want to see any employers get caught unaware.”
Lawless said that despite the potential growing pains businesses could endure while the law is implemented and leave policies are changed, she believes it will be a great benefit to workers, especially those who need time off to be caregivers for loved ones.
“This is going to really change the space of work and leave for the employees in Washington state,” she said. “This law defines ‘family member’ really broadly, so it includes paid leave to care give for not only your own aging parents who have a serious health condition but also a spouse’s parent, (as well as) children who are over age 18. So, if you have an adult child with a serious health condition and they need a caregiver, you can get wage replacement.”
Here are some tips for making sure your business is ready for the 2020 launch of PFMLA.
Individual businesses need to decide whether it is best to stick with state funding or implement a voluntary (self-funded) plan for paid family leave, paid medical leave, or both. This will require an employer to reflect on its current leave of absence policies, short-term disability insurance offerings, and the company’s financial standing.
Before a business assigns the payroll deduction to its employees, it must first notify all workers ahead of time.
If a business isn’t already collecting payroll deductions, it needs to immediately, said Lawless. Each employer should coordinate with its human resources department, payroll department, or outsourced vendor to learn what logistical steps are needed to begin withholding the new payroll taxes. If a business missed collection during the month of January, it cannot collect for that time and must pay missed premiums out of pocket.
Only a portion of PFMLA’s .4 percent tax is paid by the employee, while the employer is required to pay the deficit (or the full amount if they elect to do so). It is important to keep this in mind when setting operating budgets moving forward. Include, as an expense, the employer’s portion of paid family and medical leave premiums or the cost of your voluntary plan if applicable.
The Washington Employment Security Department will continue to roll out updates as available. Lawless said by mid-year it should be a good time to consider updating company handbooks to reflect the new leave policies. Once those have been finalized, distribute those updated handbooks and destroy outdated versions.
For more guidelines on what to expect from PFMLA and what illnesses qualify for leave, consult paidleave.wa.gov.