An Overview of New Personnel-Related Bills Adopted in the 2021 Regular Legislative Session
Several new leave-related bills were adopted in response to COVID-19 and wildfire impacts this past legislative session. This blog provides an overview of those leave-related bills as well as a new state holiday adopted in SHB 1016.
Expanded Definition of Family Member Under the Paid Family and Medical Leave Program
Effective July 25, 2021, ESSB 5097 expands coverage of the Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML) program that allows qualified employees to be paid a portion of their wages if they miss work for certain qualifying events, including caring for a family member (i.e., child, grandchild, grandparent, parent, sibling, or spouse) stricken with a serious illness or injury.
ESSB 5097 expands the definition of family member to include an individual whose relationship with the employee creates an expectation that the employee will care for this person, and the individual depends on the employee for care, whether they live in the employee’s home or not.
The bill also requires that the Employment Security Department report certain metrics to the Washington State Legislature, including the number of individuals who used PFML leave as a result of the amended definition of family member. If the number of individuals using leave under this program change exceeds 500 individuals in any calendar year before July 1, 2023, then the expenses of the additional leave must be paid by the general fund into the Family and Medical Leave Insurance Account.
Pandemic Leave Assistance Grants for Employees and Small Businesses
To qualify for paid benefits under PFML, an employee must have worked 820 hours or more in the qualifying period. The “qualifying period” is defined as either the first four of the last five completed calendar quarters or the last four completed calendar quarters.
Many Washington workers who paid into the PFML program are currently unable to access the paid leave benefits because they do not meet the eligibility threshold of 820 hours worked during the qualifying period due to pandemic-related layoffs, furloughs, closures, etc. Recognizing this issue, the legislature adopted a pandemic leave assistance employee grant in SSB 1073 to “provide financial assistance to workers who are not otherwise eligible for paid family and medical leave due to COVID-19’s impact on their ability to meet the hours worked threshold.”
Pandemic leave assistance employee grants are available to employees who meet the following criteria:
- Do not meet the PFML eligibility threshold through hours worked in 2020 and the first quarter of 2021;
- Did meet the eligibility threshold through hours worked in 2019 and the first quarter of 2020; and
- Were not separated from employment due to misconduct or a voluntary separation unrelated to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Employee leave claims ranging from 2021 through March 31, 2022, may be eligible for a grant. Beginning August 1, 2021, employees can file a claim with the Employment Security Department, the state department that runs the paid family and medical leave program.
Recognizing “that costs associated with employees on leave who have received or will receive a pandemic leave assistance employee grant…may disproportionately impact small businesses,” SSB 1073 also adopted a small businesses pandemic leave assistance grant to assist with the costs of such employees on leave. Employers (including local governments) with fewer than 150 employees are eligible for employer grants to cover the following costs associated with an employee taking PFML:
- $3,000 for hiring a temporary worker to replace the employee on PFML; or
- Up to $1,000 for significant wage-related costs related to an employee taking PFML, such as paying additional wages to an existing employee or purchasing additional equipment.
The Employment Security Department outlines the grant process on their new small business assistance grant webpage.
Expanded Employment Protections for Volunteer Firefighters Under the Industrial Welfare Act
Under the Industrial Welfare Act (IWA), employers with at least 20 full-time equivalent employees are prohibited from disciplining or firing volunteer firefighters because of leave taken related to an emergency call. However, during the 2020 wildfires in central Washington, it became apparent that IWA’s definition of “volunteer” was too narrow because it required the volunteer firefighter to be unpaid for the firefighter duties and not already at work when called to fight a fire. This narrow definition resulted in trained volunteer firefighters not being able take leave from their job to fight the 2020 wildfires due to lack of employment protection under the IWA.
In order to remedy this issue, SSB 5384 redefines a volunteer firefighter as one who is covered under the Volunteer Firefighters' and Reserve Officers' Pension and Relief System and who voluntarily performs assigned or authorized firefighting duties, whether compensated or not. Additionally, the bill extends IWA employment protections to the following situations:
- If the firefighter is already at work when called to fight a fire, they can leave their work to respond to a firefighting call so long as they have notified their employer of their firefighter status and intent to serve as a volunteer.
- If the firefighter is not already at work when called to fight a fire, they must have been ordered to remain at their position by the commanding authority at the scene of the fire.
Juneteenth: New State Holiday
The Washington State Legislature adopted SHB 1016, making Juneteenth (June 19) a paid state holiday, effective July 2021. President Joe Biden also signed legislation into law making Juneteenth a U.S. federal holiday. The date of June 19 commemorates the day in 1865 when knowledge of the Emancipation Proclamation and the abolishment of slavery reached the last remaining enslaved people in Galveston, Texas.
While local governments are not required to follow either the federal or state legal holiday schedule, many do, and RCW 1.16.050(6) authorizes the local legislative body to set their local government holiday schedules. Examples of jurisdictions that have adopted Juneteenth as a paid holiday for local government employees include Bremerton and King County.
Local governments are not required to take any specific action in response to these new laws unless they want to take advantage of the small business pandemic leave assistance grant or they want to adopt Juneteenth as a paid holiday for local government employees. Nonetheless, local government employers should familiarize themselves with the new laws in order to inform their employees, and in some cases, volunteers, about their leave options and protections.
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