- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 28, 2020

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - Officials with Washington state’s new paid family leave law are warning of delays in payouts of the weekly benefits due to the high volume of people applying since the law took effect at the start of the month.

Within the first three weeks of the program going live, more than 22,000 people have applied, which is the amount officials had estimated they would receive in the first three months, said Clare DeLong, a spokeswoman for the program that is run out of the Washington Employment Security Department.

DeLong said that while their initial goal was to process all of the applications within two weeks of getting them, they had told applicants it could take up to 30 days. But with the volume of applicants, DeLong said the time frame could go beyond the 30 days “in the near future.”

She said that applicants will get retroactive payments back to when their leave started, not from when their application is processed.

“We don’t want to discourage people from applying,” she said.

Under the law, eligible workers receive 12 weeks paid time off for the birth or adoption of a child or for serious medical condition of the worker or the worker’s family member, or 16 weeks for a combination of both. An additional two weeks may be used if there is a serious health condition with a pregnancy. The time does not need to be taken consecutively, but a minimum of eight hours at a time must be used if the benefit is claimed.

DeLong said that as of this week, 54 percent of total applications are for bonding with a new child, 25 percent are for someone dealing with a serious health condition, and 12 percent are for caring for a family member with a serious health condition. The remainder are for pregnancy-related medical leave or family leave for military families.

For the past year, employees and employers have paid into the program that was approved by the Legislature in 2017. Premiums of 0.4 percent of workers’ wages fund the program, with 63 percent paid by employees and 37 percent paid by employers.

Weekly benefits under the new law are calculated based on a percentage of the employee’s wages and the state’s weekly average wage - which is now $1,255 - though the weekly amount paid out is capped at $1,000 a week. Workers who earn less than the state average will get 90 percent of their income. Employees must work at least 820 hours before qualifying for the benefit, and those hours can be from one job or combined from multiple jobs. People who are between jobs can still take the benefit, as long as they worked the qualifying hours.

Employment Security Department Commissioner Suzi Levine said in an online statement Tuesday that the agency is adding staff and looking to simplify processing to deal with the high volume of applications. She also encouraged applicants to check their status online and make sure they’ve gone through the application checklist to ease the application process.

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