PEPS Parent Stories Capture Growing Pains as WA State’s Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML) Turns Three

By Annie Garrett, M.Ed., PEPS Contributor (Estimated reading time: 8 minutes) 

A father holding a sleeping infant against his chest. (Image courtesy of Laura Garcia)

Birthdays are a time for celebration (smash cakes!) and reflection (throwback pics!). As we celebrate the third birthday of Washington State’s Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML), we’re taking a moment to celebrate and reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re going with our so-called “best in nation” PFML policy. Plus, a real-time update on what happened with PFML during the 2022 legislative session and real-world advice from families who have recently been using this policy on the ground.  

A Primer: Wait a minute — What is this FMLA or PFMLA I mean PFML thing, anyway?  

As reported right here on the PEPS Blog back in 2019, “Washington’s Paid Family and Medical Leave program will provide workers with paid time off to welcome a new child to their family, care for a sick loved one, or to recover from their own serious medical condition.” Approved by the legislature in 2017 and kicking off in 2020, PFML has been doing just that for three years now. Although PFML can apply to various leave situations, this article pertains to using it to welcome a new child, whether through birth, adoption, or fostering.  

To qualify, parents must have worked at least 820 hours with one or more employers within the past year. Any parent can take up to 12 weeks to bond with the child, and a parent who gave birth to an infant can take up to 16 weeks. The leave is typically “job-protected” and pays out the full wages for lower-income workers and a percentage of wages of higher-income workers (see the calculator here). Expectant or new parents can apply at the Washington Paid Family & Medical Leave website. If your employer offers PTO, it can typically be combined with PFML, which can be used any time within your child’s first year with your family.  

An Update: What’s changed since PFML kicked off in 2020? 

Although we have a long way to go to have leave packages that rival those in peer nations, Washington state’s leave is getting better with age. In 2021, the legislature expanded the definition of “family member” for medical leave and added a pandemic leave assistance employee grant. In the recent 2022 legislative session, MomsRising.org reports that Paid Family and Medical Leave 2SSB 5649 was passed, requiring employers to provide seven calendar days of paid leave following the death of a family member and setting up actuarial services to steady the PFML program. Perhaps most notably, the state responded to widespread concerns of a funding deficit by adding $350 million to the budget.  

Legislative Session Reflection: So what didn’t happen during the 2022 legislative session? 

We are a city of hopers and dreamers, movers and thinkers who know that the wanting of more leave and better parental leave is nothing short of right (for babies) and just (for all). Going into the 2022 legislative session, PEPS and our advocacy partners called upon legislators to simplify PFML, making it easier for expectant parents to apply before childbirth in order to reduce mental and financial stress post-childbirth. This plea made its way into State Bill SB 5649 but unfortunately, it was severely amended to the point that the final bill did not include advance applications. PEPS has only just begun its work in the advocacy sphere, so stay tuned, and stay hopeful. 

A mother kissing her baby’s forehead and holding their hand. (Image courtesy of Rodnae Productions)

Real Life Reflections: What Do PEPS Parents (& Friends) Have to Say About PFML? 

Eight PEPS parents/locals recently participated in a brief survey on their experience using PFML within the past two years, sharing their perspective on what worked and what didn’t.  

In terms of the cons, most respondents reported some challenges either with using the state system or having the full support of their employer to do so.  Jesse, a father of one in North Seattle, commented, “It was very hard to navigate all of the different rules between employers, state, and federal agencies… The WA state PFML site does not keep a tally visible… Also, WA state does not offer guidance on how to claim your PFML for taxes.”  Katie, a mom of one from North Tacoma, concurred, “The program is new and HR didn’t know some of the answers to my questions, so I just fumbled through it.”  

Christine, mom of three from South Seattle, lamented, “The paperwork takes so long to process, you have to have savings or some other plan if you rely on the income. It comes weeks, if not months after leave starts.” Eliza, mom of two from the Central District, added, “When I was trying to get things set up right after having the baby it was rough…I had to contact HR and ESD [Employment Security Department] numerous times to make sure I was submitting paperwork correctly, while my baby cried in the background.” To that she added, “My employer was philosophically on board, but practically speaking they weren’t able to get enough coverage for all my job duties, so I felt the need to work part time. Sadly, I wasn’t able to be fully present with my baby when I had work on my mind, even if it was only a few hours here and there.” 

In terms of the pros, they were nearly equivalent in number to the cons and varied from parent to parent. However, all agreed that claiming leave was worthwhile overall. New mom Jenny, of North Tacoma, shared a largely positive experience: “Being able to be fully dedicated to navigating parenthood and not worry about work responsibilities created new space and capacity to be fully present as a new mom. Overlapping with my spouse for 2 months when the baby was 3-4 months was also a special opportunity to witness his development together as a family.”  

Those who found the system taxing to use felt that it was nonetheless redeemed by its outcomes. Christine, a mom of three from South Seattle, explained, “Not having to use all of my PTO while having young kids who may get sick or have appointments was much less stressful than before this program.” Jesse, a father of one from North Seattle, extolled the financial savings: “We worked hard to plan out how to use WA medical leave (my spouse), WA family leave, and FMLA throughout the first 7 months to stretch our time with new baby as long as possible and hold off on daycare costs.” And one parent, Ashley, a mother of two from Southeast Seattle, reported that the paperwork process was “easy” in her case, yet pointed out that the three week waiting period for the first leave payment might not be as doable for all families. 

A father and baby smiling at each other and holding hands. (Image courtesy of Ксения)

Real World Advice: What do PEPS Parents (& Friends) Recommend to Future Users of PFML? 

Tips from the parent survey were numerous and fell under the themes of “plan ahead,” “be organized,” “be strategic,” and “save up.” 

Plan ahead: 

  • Start early: ask other co-workers who have used the leave system to give you a tutorial; reach out to HR and your supervisor at least a few months in advance. 
  • You can get most of the leave application filled out before the event. Take the paper with you to the birth as the rest of it must be done after the actual birth. 

Be organized: 

  • Track your own PFML hours meticulously because there is no dashboard or tracking system that is user facing on the state website. 
  • But…if you lose track of how much leave you’ve used, you can call ESD at 833-717-2273 for an update. Expect to be on hold for about 30 minutes on average. 

Be strategic: 

  • If you have a spouse, partially overlap your leave with them for full family bonding. 
  • If your employer is flexible with how you spread out your leave, think twice before deciding to do part-time leave and part-time work. It can lead you down a path of not doing either very well.  
  • Note that some employers are more supportive than others. Unfortunately, employers for lower-wage jobs are often less supportive of staff using paid leave. Do not suffer in silence. Get involved with advocacy groups like MomsRising for community support.  

Save up: 

  • Save up money ahead of time. Even though you will be compensated, it won’t happen in real time and having money saved can help bridge the gap.  
  • Save some days of PFML and personal paid time off (PTO) for when you return to work and send baby to childcare, but will inevitably need to take days off when the baby gets sick. Note: during the pandemic, babies are often sent home from childcare with mild symptoms and typically cannot return without a negative Covid test result. 

Summary and Next Steps 

After three years, Paid Family and Medical Leave is undoubtedly a net gain, but is far from realizing its potential as a comprehensive, user-friendly benefit that all families can tap into. To learn more and speak up here in Washington State, visit the MomsRising page. To learn more about movement at the national level, check out the Zero to Three site. At this early and critical juncture, the feedback and advocacy of individual Washington State parents matters locally and nationally. As South Seattle Senator Karen Keiser (D-33rd District) put it, “… 40,000 Washington members (of MomsRising) were instrumental in our state’s paid family and medical leave victory. They brought the voices of mothers, fathers, and family caregivers right into the heart of the policy-making process. Washington’s paid family and medical leave law will not only strengthen families here in Washington, but it will also serve as a blueprint for other states to follow…“ (quoted from When Moms Rise, p. 19). Add your voice to this important issue! 

<meta charset="utf-8">Annie Garrett, M.Ed.
Annie Garrett, M.Ed.

Annie is an Infant Parent Educator at South Seattle College and the Manager of the Early Childhood Education Bachelor of Applied Science Degree at North Seattle College. She is a rather passionate fan of tiny humans and the not-so-tiny humans who support them. She also volunteers as a PEPS Group Leader. Reach out to her if you or your PEPS Group want to learn more about this topic or Infant Co-Op  (one of Seattle’s best-kept secrets!) at teacher.annie.garrett@gmail.com.

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