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As paid family leave claims rise in Washington, the wait for benefits gets longer

The time to process an application could reach four months unless dozens more workers are hired, program administrators say

By Jerry Cornfield Washington State Standard

Washington’s Paid Family and Medical Leave program wants to hire 49 more employees to deal with steadily rising demand that has some people waiting over a month to receive benefits.

The state Employment Security Department asked for authority to hire the workers in a 2024 supplemental budget request submitted to Gov. Jay Inslee earlier this month. Officials say there’s money to cover the costs but the governor and the Legislature must approve spending it in this manner.

Without added staff, ESD officials project the time required to process a benefit application could reach four months by June 2025 because there are “no significant indications that the rate of caseload growth is decreasing.”

In July, it took an average of five weeks to process applications for weekly benefits, according to a new ESD report. That’s a week longer than July 2022 but half the delay experienced in the initial months following the program’s launch.

Delays extend beyond paperwork. People who phone customer service sat on hold an average of 31.5 minutes in July compared to a little under 12.5 minutes in July 2022.

Joe Kendo, chief of staff for the Washington State Labor Council and member of the program’s advisory committee, said the unflagging demand shows the program is “pretty effective in meeting the needs of Washington families.”

“We’ve been watching the wait times. The delays are a real issue,” he said. “I’m hopeful legislators will work with us.”

Washington began its Paid Family and Medical Leave program in January 2020.

Eligible workers can receive up to 12 weeks paid time off for the birth or adoption of a child or for a serious medical condition of the worker or the worker’s family member, or 16 weeks for a combination of both. You can qualify because of a major surgery, to receive treatment for a chronic health condition, or to receive inpatient treatment for substance abuse or mental health.

One also can receive time if there is a serious health condition with a pregnancy or following the loss of a child. Family members in the military also qualify for leave to spend time with service members about to be deployed overseas or who return home from deployment.

Weekly benefits are calculated based on a percentage of the employee’s wages and the state’s weekly average wage. You can receive up to 90% of your weekly pay up to a maximum of $1,427 in 2023, according to ESD which administers the programs.

The program is funded with premiums paid by workers and employers. Currently, at businesses with 50 or more workers, employees pay 72.76% of the total premium and employers pay 27.24%.

Since starting, the state has distributed more than $3.4 billion in leave benefits to over 382,000 employees. 

At the outset, Employment Security Department committed to processing applications within two weeks of receiving them. It’s been hard to achieve that goal.

In the first few weeks of operation, the state got three times the number of applications they anticipated. The state approved 133,014 applications between July 1, 2020 and June 30, 2021, its first full fiscal year. Employment officials project applications will climb to 251,592 in the current fiscal year with the vast majority getting approved.

Unfinished business

In a second supplemental budget request, the department is seeking about $8.3 million to hire another 48 full-time employees for operational changes “to deliver on the full intent of the law.” If approved, the additional workers would be hired in July 2024 for a range of projects.

Unlike the other proposed hires, bringing these employees aboard would require lawmakers to approve additional spending. 

“The agency was not able to fully implement every component of the complex law in its initial design work and meet an aggressive timeline to reach benefit payment,” employment officials wrote in the request. “As a result, the program presently operates with several manual procedures that require further design work, and key components of the law remain incomplete.”

For example, an employee cannot receive benefits for paid leave at the same time they are or will receive unemployment benefits. Right now, efforts to prevent that from happening are done manually for the most part. The department wants to make it possible to quickly cross match unemployment insurance and paid leave program records.

Similarly, if a person who qualifies for benefits owes child support, the Employment Security Department is supposed to withhold a sum. The department wants to be able to share information with the Department of Social and Health Services’ Division of Child Services and make sure withheld amounts go toward child support obligations.

Other projects include developing a means to identify, investigate, and recover any overpayments of benefits and making it possible for a federally recognized Tribe to fully participate in the paid leave program.

Decisions on the department requests won’t be made for a while.

Inslee will release his proposed supplemental budget in December. It will provide lawmakers with a template as they develop their own budgets in the 60-day session that begins in January.

Washington State Standard is an independent, nonprofit news organization that produces original reporting on policy and politics.

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