The state of Washington has amended the state’s existing Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML) program to create assistance grants for certain qualifying employers and employees on a temporary basis due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The amendments have two main features:
- Expanded access to workers who may have been previously ineligible for PFML benefits by allowing them to use their 2019 hours worked instead of their 2020 hours worked in order to meet the PFML program eligibility requirements; and
- Financial assistance to employers to help cover the cost of employees using PFML leave as a result of #1 above. This assistance will be funded by the state legislature and will continue to be available until the funding is exhausted. This amendment expires on June 30, 2023.
While we are awaiting further rules implementing the mechanics of this amendment, this article provides an overview of what we know so far about the assistance program.
Pandemic Leave Assistance – Employer Grants
What is the Pandemic Leave Assistance Employer Grant?
The amendments provide assistance to certain employers to help offset the cost related to employees on PFML leave who are receiving a pandemic leave assistance employee grant.
If an employer hires a temporary worker to replace an employee on PFML for seven days or more, the employer may apply to receive a grant of $3,000. If an employee’s PFML creates significant additional wage-related costs, an employer may receive a grant of up to $1,000 as reimbursement. Beginning August 1, 2021, employers may apply for this assistance with the Department of Paid Family and Medical Leave (“Department”).
Which Employers are Eligible for Assistance?
The amendments provide pandemic leave assistance grants to two categories of employers:
- employers with 150 or fewer employees; and
- employers with 50 or fewer employees who pay employer PFML premiums.
As a reminder the PFML program is funded by premiums paid by employees and employers (the rate depends on employer size). For 2021, the PFML premium is 0.4% of each employee’s gross wages, not including tips, up to the Social Security cap ($142,800). The premium is divided between employer and employee as follows:
- Employee premium (mandatory for all employees): up to 2/3 of the total amount (63.33%) can be paid by the employee. Employers are required to either withhold this amount from each employee’s paycheck or pay it on their employees’ behalf. Employers then submit this portion of the premium to the state along with their quarterly reports.
- Employer premium (mandatory for employers with 50 or more employees): 1/3 of the total amount (36.67%) is the employer’s share. If you have 50 or more employees, you must pay the employer share of the premium. If you have fewer than 50 employees, the employer premium is optional but if you choose to pay the employer share of the premium, you can receive additional benefits for your business such as access to this special grant assistance program.
For more information about employer responsibilities under the Washington PFML program please visit the state’s dedicated webpage.
Is the Employer Assistance Limited in any way?
Yes. Under the temporary amendment, the grants are available only to employers with employees who are on leave through the use of pandemic leave employee assistance. This pandemic leave assistance is limited to employers that pay employer premiums to the PFML programs. Therefore, employers who utilize their own approved voluntary plans are not eligible to receive these grants.
Pandemic Leave Assistance – Employee Grants
What is the Pandemic Leave Assistance Employee Grant?
The amendment provides pandemic leave assistance to workers who are not otherwise eligible for PFML due to COVID-19’s impact on their ability to meet the hours worked threshold. The grant will provide an equivalent benefit to what the worker would otherwise be eligible to receive under the PFML program. In general, an employee is eligible for PFML if they have a serious health condition and worked 820 hours in the qualifying period.
The qualifying period is:
- the first four of the last five completed calendar quarters or;
- the last four completed calendar quarters immediately preceding the application for leave.
For more information and an overview of the PFML program, please visit our blog post.
The temporary amendment does not change the “hours worked” requirement or the qualifying period under the PFML Program. It does, however, permit an employee’s hours worked in 2019 and early 2020 to be used for purposes of establishing eligibility for PFML benefits.
Which Employees are Eligible for this Assistance?
If an employee seeks PFML with an effective start date from January 1, 2021 through March 31, 2022, but does not meet the hours worked threshold requirement, the employee is eligible for a pandemic leave assistance grant if they:
- Worked 820 hours in 2019; or
- Worked 820 hours during the second through fourth calendar quarters of 2019 and the first calendar quarter of 2020.
The amount of the grant equals the normal PFML benefit and employees must follow the same rules for receiving PFML. Employees may file a claim with the Department beginning August 1, 2021.
Is the Employee Assistance Limited in any way?
An employee is ineligible if they have insufficient hours worked because of employment separation due to misconduct or a voluntary separation of employment unrelated to COVID-19.
In addition, employees cannot receive a grant for any week in which they have received, are receiving, or will receive unemployment compensation, workers’ compensation, or any other applicable federal unemployment compensation, industrial insurance, or disability insurance.