Washington State Referendum 71 (R71): What Employers Need to Know

Referendum 71 (R71) was a 2009 ballot referendum that asked Washington state voters to re-confirm the expansion of domestic partnership rights and obligations in Washington’s originally limited domestic partnership legislation. The new law allows registered domestic partners to be treated the same as married couples for all purpose under state law. While most of the amendments will not have a direct impact from an employer perspective, one area that will be immediately affected is several Washington State leave entitlements.

Specific Changes to Leave of Absence Entitlements
As a reminder, the passage of Referendum 71 only amends state law and does not affect any federal laws such as the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). In addition, the law will not go into effect until after the election is certified sometime in December of 2009. The following are the applicable Washington state leave entitlements that will be affected once the law goes into effect.

Washington Family Leave Act (FLA)
The Washington FLA mirrors the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Like FMLA, for covered employers it allows eligible employees up to 12 weeks of leave in the event of a serious health condition by the employee or an employee’s family member (previously defined as a “child, parent, or spouse”). With passage of R71, the law now expands the definition of family member to include registered domestic partners.

Washington Family Care Act
Pursuant to this Act, employers who provide a paid leave benefits must allow employees to use accrued sick or other paid time off benefits to care for sick family members. Currently, the definition of family members includes spouses and parents-in-law. The new law expands the definition to include registered domestic partners and therefore, parents of registered domestic partners would presumably be included.

Washington Domestic Violence Leave
An employee, or an employee’s family member, who is a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking, is entitled to take reasonable leave from work to take care of legal or law enforcement needs and obtain health care. Currently, the definition of family member includes a child, spouse, parent, parent-in-law, grandparent or person with whom the employee is dating. The new law expands protections to domestic partners and therefore, parents of a registered domestic partner would presumably be included.

Washington Military Family Leave

Washington state now allows an employee whose spouse is a member of the United States armed forces, national guard, or reserves who has been notified of an impending call or order to active duty, or who has been deployed, or when the military spouse is on leave from deployment, a total of fifteen (15) days of unpaid leave per deployment. The new law entitles registered domestic partners to the same benefit as married spouses.

Passage of this new law will certainly invite legal challenges that will continue to shape and redefine the parameters of the law. Employers are encouraged to stay informed as to these changes and to update their policies and handbooks accordingly.

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