Last year Gov. Chris Gregoire and our legislature took a historic step, making Washington just the second state in the nation to promise paid family leave to all new parents. For the current legislative session the action around family leave isn't quite as dramatic, but we still have important work to make sure that the family leave insurance program begins paying benefits as scheduled in October 2009. We have a technical bill to pass and must make sure that start-up funds stay in the supplemental budget.
Washington's family leave insurance program will provide parents of newborn and newly adopted children up to five weeks off work with a benefit of up to $250 per week (less for part-timers) after a one-week waiting period. Compared to international standards, it's a small step forward. But it's huge in the U.S. context, where for too long the reigning political philosophy for workers and families has been "You're on your own."
Two hundred years ago, the United States realized that defending and perpetuating democracy required a commitment to educating all children. But our notion of education is stuck in the early 20th century, while much of the rest of the world has surged ahead. For the most part, public policy in the U.S. ignores young children and their parents. We tend to consider having children a personal lifestyle choice, with all the costs and responsibilities to be borne by the parents until the child turns five and enters formal public education. Then we are amazed that our kids lag behind in international comparisons of school achievement.
In most other countries, the public commitment to nurturing and educating young citizens begins at birth. New parents qualify for months of paid leave, so that all children get the chance for a healthy start. Not surprisingly, 40 countries have lower rates of infant mortality than the U.S., according to the World Health Organization. Assuring that parents have dedicated time with their newborn also lays a solid foundation for lifelong learning that is reinforced through high quality, publicly supported daycare and preschool in most of those countries whose children trounce ours in math, science, and critical thinking tests.
Last year, Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson (D-Seattle) and Sen. Karen Keiser (D-Kent) initially proposed a family and medical leave insurance program that would cover care of critically ill family members and the worker's own serious illness, along with care of new children. The program was to be paid for by workers themselves through a 2 cent per hour payroll tax. But despite the support of many small businesses and the pro-early learning stance of several of Washington's most prominent employers, family leave became the number-one kill bill of the legislative session for a segment of the business lobby. Instead of adopting the full program with dedicated funding, the House scaled back to the parental leave piece, with funding to be determined later. Other states that have tried to pass family friendly legislation, from Maine and New Jersey to Illinois and Oregon, have experienced the same full court press of negative lobbying.
During the fall, a task force met to consider administrative issues in Washington's family leave program, including both Democratic and Republican legislators and citizens representing business, labor, and families. The task force chose an agency to administer the program (Employment Security, which handles Unemployment Insurance) and agreed on a number of efficiencies that will make the program both easier for new parent to use and less costly to administer. Those recommendations are embodied in two bills, HB 3305 and SB 6280. Both bills are now moving through the legislature.
The task force also recommended that the family leave program be initially supported by the state's General Fund. As a program with a primary focus on children's health and early education, this makes sense. Gov. Gregoire included the $6.2 million needed for the rest of this budget cycle in her supplemental budget request, but with possible budget deficits on the horizon, it is important to let legislators know that funding family leave is a high priority.
When the legislature comes back again in 2009 for a longer session, we'll hold them to the task of passing a permanent funding source for family leave insurance. By then, the elections will be behind them, the economy settled down, and the effects of Eyman's latest initiative, I-960, figured out. We might also have an administration in the other Washington willing to spend money on our children and families at home, rather than on a senseless war abroad.
It's high time we stopped just talking about family values and started valuing families. And it's time we moved beyond talking about promoting democracy abroad and started promoting democracy at home. Family Leave Insurance, which recommits us to the nurture and education of our littlest citizens, is a good starting point.