Many cheered when Washington became the fifth state in the nation to pass paid family leave legislation in 2017 (three additional states have enacted such legislation since that time). Although Washington enacted the legislation in 2017, individuals could not apply for benefits under the program until January 2020.
With years to plan, one might expect that the roll out of the program would be smooth, right? Not exactly. State officials drastically underestimated the level of demand for the program: within the first three weeks state officials received the number of applications that they expected in the first three months. In light of the unexpected volume, it's taking officials an average of ten weeks to process an application–far off their goal of two weeks.
In a dramatic step, Suzi Levine, the commissioner for Washington's Employment Security Department, took to YouTube to apologize. She explained that the department has been overwhelmed with 30,000 applications for benefits in the program's first six weeks, an amount she admits is "wildly off the mark" of their official estimates. And she stated that the department was "so sorry" for any "negative implications" that the delay in receiving benefits has had for individuals.
Levine also noted that–in arriving at their "wildly off the mark" estimates–state officials had relied on the "best available data" from other states that had implemented paid leave programs. That Washington officials could be so off despite having years to review this data underscores how little legislators can actually know in advance of adopting a paid leave program. And it is yet another reason legislators should be cautious as they consider any national paid parental leave program.
For example, consider take-up rates (i.e., the number of individuals eligible for benefits who actually apply and collect benefits). In New Jersey, around just 12% of new parents collect benefits under the state's paid family leave program. By contrast, in California it's around 17%–a rate that is about 40% higher than New Jersey's. This difference may seem small, but it represents thousands of additional applications and (all other things being equal) would require a substantially higher payroll tax to fund the expected benefits.
Speaking of which, if Washington has so woefully underestimated the number of individuals who would seek benefits under its program, what are the odds that it has also underestimated the additional payroll tax (currently set at .4%) required to fund it?