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Seattle may require businesses to offer 6 months of paid family leave by 2020, if a current proposal moves forward. (Photo via Shutterstock).

The City of Seattle and Washington state are considering policies that would require businesses to offer paid family and medical leave — both of which would be funded through payroll fees.

A representative from Olympia met with the Seattle City Council Wednesday to discuss the separate but related initiatives. The state’s divided legislative branches face an uphill battle finding a paid leave compromise, but far-left Seattle seems poised to implement a program over the next few years.

Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez listens to an Olympia representative discuss state progress on paid leave. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

That means businesses in Seattle could be required to offer six months of paid time off to care for new children or sick family members, and 12 weeks for employees dealing with illness themselves.

The proposal, spearheaded by Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez would function like an insurance policy with premiums that would fund wage reimbursements of up to $1,000 per week for employees who qualify for leave. Employers would pay 70 percent of the premiums, while employees would be responsible for 30 percent. If passed, the city would begin collecting premiums in 2019 and offering benefits in 2020.

“While I sincerely hope that the state Legislature passes a law that is available for all Washington workers, Seattle, as we always are, is ready to stand on our own two feet to address the real issue of gender inequity with a known solution, which is a universal, affordable paid family and medical leave program,” Gonzalez said during the council meeting.

Four states and two cities in the U.S. currently have mandated paid leave programs. New York has the most generous, offering 12 weeks. If Gonzalez’s program is implemented, it will be the most liberal paid leave policy in the country by far.

Paid leave is a hot-button issue for the tech industry, which grapples with a major gender gap and talent shortages. Generous leave policies can give tech companies a recruiting edge and help address gender inequity. For those reasons, among others, many big companies in Seattle are already liberal with their leave policies. Some of those companies have, unsurprisingly, voiced their support for Gonzalez’s plan.

But it’s not clear what unintended consequences businesses may face under a mandatory paid leave program. It’s possible generous leave policies won’t be quite as big a bargaining chip in recruiting efforts if it’s a perk all companies offer. Currently, 50 percent of businesses in Washington offer no paid leave policies, according to a survey of 400 employed residents presented during the council meeting. New startups may also be more inclined to set up shop outside of Seattle city limits, where they wouldn’t be subject to the payroll fee.

Advocates of paid leave argue it is a boon to the economy and health of families, allowing women to remain in the workforce after having children and encouraging both parents to play active roles in early childcare.

The Washington Tech Industry Association (WTIA) is urging the Seattle City Council to hold off on policymaking until the state has had a chance to enact mandatory paid leave.

“Our industry has been actively working with state legislators on this topic,” WTIA CEO Michael Schutzler said during the council meeting. “The State House and Senate have made excellent progress this session and we remain optimistic that [paid family and medical leave] will become law in our state this year. We, therefore, urge the city council to refrain from legislation until the state process can run its course.The state is well equipped to administer the complexity and expense of Paid Medical Family Leave. Residents of Spokane, Bellingham, and Bellevue deserve this benefit as much as any resident of Seattle.”

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