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Washington State’s Parental Leave Program Excludes a Huge Amount of New Parents

By April 6, 2023April 20th, 2023News
Photo of two parents and their two baby children sitting on a blanket laughing.

Nearly four out of ten women are excluded from Washington’s parental leave program. A minimum benefit is the solution.


Washington State has an important role to play in providing residents and communities with a solid foundation to build on for a good life. The progressive movement in Washington has been very busy over the last decade building this foundation, such as raising the minimum wage in 2016, a paid family parental and medical leave program in 2017, and a capital gains tax to fund child care and K-12 education in 2021.  

These are no small feats, as Washington Democrats have often had a razor thin margin in the Senate, and a Corporate Democrat ‘Roadkill’ caucus to contend with. Each of these victories required years of diligent inside-outside strategy, organizing, and, of course, compromises, to usher bills through the legislative gauntlet. 

Now, as we chart out a future in which WA Democrats continue to flip more seats (not a given, but highly possible), and the much-larger caucus welcomes new progressive leaders, we believe there will be new opportunities to build on existing victories  and develop stronger policies for the everyday people we’re fighting for. 

To that end, we are excited to announce an ongoing collaboration on Washington’s welfare policies with People’s Policy Project (PPP), a small but mighty progressive think tank focused on the welfare state, led by researcher and writer Matt Bruenig. Bruenig previously worked at Demos and NLRB, and has been published and covered in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Vox. He is a frequent collaborator on welfare legislation with national progressive icons such as Rep. Rashida Tlaib. We are lucky to have a national expert focused on Washington and his incisive and meticulous analysis will make our state stronger. 

Paid Parental Leave in Washington State

Bruenig’s first article in this series, released last month, analyzes Washington’s Paid Family & Medical Leave (WA PFML) program, which was passed into law in 2017 with bipartisan support and began delivering benefits in 2020, which hundreds of thousands of Washington families have greatly benefited from. 

The program didn’t come into existence easily. The coalition behind the bill, the Washington Work and Family Coalition, began their advocacy all the way back in 1998. The coalition initially sought to pass statewide paid family leave, but after setbacks in the legislature, the coalition passed municipal paid leave ordinances in Seattle in 2011, Tacoma in 2015, and Spokane in 2016. The popularity and success of the municipal programs, combined with the threat of advocates running a statewide initiative, paved the way for the 2017 legislative victory. A more detailed history of the strategy behind the initiative has been written by Marilyn Watkins of the Economic Opportunity Institute (EOI). Last year, EOI’s Watkins also analyzed the program’s performance, focusing on administration, applicant characteristics, and projected versus actual demand. 

Now, Bruenig adds to our understanding of the program, by looking at whether workers in the state are eligible for benefits and the overall participation rate. By utilizing administrative data, CDC data, and Census data, he notes some serious flaws that require our attention: 

Nearly four out of ten women between the ages of 18 and 45 are ineligible for benefits under the program because they do not satisfy its steep work history requirements. These work history requirements do not just disqualify nonworkers in the state. They also disqualify many workers, especially those who receive low wages. These eligibility exclusions and low program participation in general has resulted in less than 40 percent of new parents receiving benefits from the WA PFML program.

Bruenig explains further that low-wage workers are some of the hardest hit by work-history requirements, with workers making under $17/hr accounting for a quarter of the WA workforce, but only 15% of eligible workers for the WA PFML. 

At the time of passage in 2020, advocates knew these work requirements could undercut equitable access to family and medical leave. 

Bruenig suggests we improve the policy by looking at best practices from paid family programs from around the world. A key design principle found in these programs is that all WA parents should receive paid parental leave, regardless of work history. 

The analysis concludes with a number of technical recommendations, including a minimum weekly benefit, allowing single parents to take the amount of combined leave available to two-parent households, and improvements to the tax and benefit parameters. He encourages a policy that does not treat parental leave and medical leave as having the same parameters, given they are very different kinds of leave.

Next steps to improve parental leave in WA 

The politics of 2017 are quite different from the politics of 2023. The Republicans controlled the Senate by caucusing with a corporate Roadkill Caucus Democrat. Additionally, at that time, the prevailing policy wisdom was to design welfare policies with 90s style work requirements or means-testing. There had only just begun to be renewed interest and understanding of the need for universal welfare programs. For example, writer Annie Lowry’s well read The Time Tax article was published in 2021. 

(Also, keep in mind, it took advocates almost twenty years to pass our statewide program! It is still a massive accomplishment, and hundreds of thousands of WA families have benefited from the program.)

The original 2017 legislative approach was a broad-tent coalition, including corporate and business interests. Now in 2023 and 2024, when making much needed improvements to the program, advocates could and should try a big tent approach again. Another change from 2017: WA Corporations are eager today to tout their love for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, and so they should care about low-wage workers, who are disproportionately people of color, surely? 

But if Republicans and corporate interests are hostile to making sure all workers receive parental leave, now in 2023, we should be able to move forward without them.