Dear Friends and Neighbors,
As Washington state continues to grapple with the economic uncertainty created by the pandemic, it's more important than ever that we help employees and job providers recover. The crisis took a devastating financial toll on thousands of individuals and families and brought many businesses to the brink of collapse.
For this update, I'll be sharing information on Small Business Flex loans offered through the Department of Commerce, some changes to the Paid Family Medical Leave program, and bills that make changes to the Employment Security Department unemployment benefits and guidelines.
Small Business Flex Fund
In partnership with several community organizations and financial institutions, the Washington State Department of Commerce is offering low-interest loans of up to $150,000 to small business owners and nonprofits through the state's new Small Business Flex Fund. Qualifying firms can apply for loans with 60 to 72-month terms at interest rates between 3% and 4.5%.
Click here to apply.
Paid Family Medical Leave
In 2019, employees started paying into the paid family medical leave program. However, when the state experienced a shutdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic a year later, thousands of employees were ineligible. Why? Because many of them had not worked enough hours in 2020 and through the first quarter of 2021 to meet the minimum requirements for paid family medical leave.
To address this problem, House Bill 1073 created pandemic leave grant assistance funding for employees and some small business job providers. The bill passed the Washington State House of Representatives with 56 yeas and 42 nays, was signed into law by the governor and became effective on April 21, 2021.
Starting in August 2021, employees who worked the required threshold of hours can receive a pandemic leave assistance grant. Those hourly requirements are as follows:
- 820 hours in 2019 during the first through fourth calendar quarters; or
- 820 hours the second through the fourth calendar quarters of 2019, and first calendar quarter of 2020.
Other employee grant requirements include:
- An employee must not lose their employment due to misconduct or voluntary separation unrelated to COVID-19;
- An employee may not receive this assistance for any week that they received, or is receiving, or will receive unemployment compensation, or any other applicable federal unemployment compensation, industrial insurance, or disability law; and
- The grant will be an equivalent benefit to what the worker would have otherwise been eligible to receive under the paid family medical leave program.
When an employee takes leave after receiving the grant, the measure also provides funding to small business job providers. Some of the requirements to qualify include:
- Only businesses with less than 150 employees are eligible for grants;
- The grant can only cover costs associated with an employee taking leave in receipt of a grant, unless an employer has an approved voluntary plan; and
- A grant for $3,000 is available if the employer hires a temporary worker to replace the employee on leave; and
- Up to $1,000 in reimbursement for significant wage-related costs due to the employee's leave.
To learn more about this bill, click here.
Senate Bill 5097
On May 10, 2021, the governor signed Senate Bill 5097 into law. The law expands the definition of family member to include any individual who regularly resides in the employee's home or has a relationship with an individual that has an expectation the employee will care for them if they become ill. A family member does not include an individual who resides in the home and has no expectation that the employee care for them.
The bill passed the Washington State House of Representatives with 55 yeas and 42 nays, was signed into law by the governor and takes effect on July 25, 2021.
To learn more about the bill, click here.
Paid Family Medical Leave Advisory Committee
Under the original paid family medical leave bill that passed the Legislature in 2017, an advisory committee was created. The committee has the authority to comment on department rules, policies, other specified matters and determine what issues need to be studied.
Under Senate Bill 5097, the advisory committee has also been instructed to comment on three reports that Employment Security Department must submit to the Legislature. The first report, due on Dec. 1, 2021, must include:
- Program use by employees covered under approved voluntary plans compared to employees covered under the state plan; and
- Program use by employees working for job providers with 50 or more employees, compared to employees working for employers with fewer than 50 employees.
Two more reports are due by June 30, 2022, and June 30, 2023. Those reports must contain:
- The number of individuals who used leave under the paid family medical leave program because of the amended definition of family member in the act; and
- The effects, if any, on the paid family medical leave program account because of the amended definition of family member in the act.
Changes to the Employment Security Department and unemployment benefit guidelines
As you may recall, in my previous business update I highlighted two bills approved in 2021 that will impact the Employment Security Department and unemployment guidelines:
- Senate Bill 5061 | Provides unemployment insurance benefits to high-risk individuals, or those who live with high-risk individuals, who voluntarily quit their jobs during a public health emergency if they cannot work from home or are unable to perform work at home for another employer.
- House Bill 1493 | Allows the Employment Security Department to direct the required evidence of job search activities for unemployment insurance claimants until Dec 31, 2023. It also creates more flexibility around those requirements to show if job seekers are looking for work.
Here are additional Employment Security Department-related bills not included in my original update:
- Senate Bill 5425 | Concerns extended benefits in the unemployment insurance system. The measure adds seven weeks of extended benefits for a total of 20 weeks, removes the usual waiting period, and allows the Employment Security Department more flexibility when the federal government changes the policies around unemployment.
- Senate Bill 5193 | Puts into place a set of reforms at the Employment Security Department. The bill creates a training program to form a team of emergency adjudicators who can be on-hand for any future crises like the current one.
Stay in touch!
Even though the session has concluded, I work for you year-round. As always, thank you for the opportunity and the honor to serve you, your family, and our communities as your state representative.