Opinion: Some low-income workers are being taxed but not earning eligibility in WA Cares

Elizabeth New (Hovde) of the Washington Policy Center provides more information on WA Cares that voters can consider before deciding their November vote on Initiative 2124.

There is a recommendation to the Washington State Legislature to increase this hours-worked requirement from 500 to 1,000 hours per year

Elizabeth New (Hovde)
Washington Policy Center

The state says, “If you are working more than 500 hours per year (about 10 hours per week) as an employee, you will be contributing and earning WA Cares benefits.” That’s a glass-is-half-full way of looking at the requirement. Another way to explain this requirement is to say that if you work fewer than 500 hours a year, you are being taxed for WA Cares but not earning eligibility in the program. 

Elizabeth New (Hovde), Washington Policy Center
Elizabeth New (Hovde), Washington Policy Center

There is also a recommendation to the Legislature to increase this hours-worked requirement from 500 to 1,000 hours per year. On page six of the 2024 LTSS Trust Commission Recommendations Report, lawmakers are urged to “increase the number of hours worked required to earn a qualifying year from 500 to 1,000. This recommendation applies to all workers, both in and out of state.” The reason for the recommendation was to offset the expected cost of allowing the WA Cares benefit to be portable for some eligible individuals who move out of state, which the Legislature did this past session. (Before now, the WA Cares lifetime benefit of $36,500 that some workers could qualify for someday was only going to be able to be used by beneficiaries who remained in the state.) 

Back to the glass-half-full description of the state taking money from part-time workers that many will never see again: Add it to the list of ways in which the state is making people ineligible for a program they are forced to pay into all of their career years at a rate of 58 cents on every $100 of earnings. (For now. The tax rate could increase, as has the payroll tax for Paid Family and Medical Leave. That tax rate has about doubled in its short lifetime.)

Some high-school students, family caregivers with part-time jobs to help make ends meet and even disabled people who work minimally are not earning eligibility in WA Cares. The state should stop proclaiming from the rooftops and on its web pages that all workers can have peace of mind because of WA Cares. All workers cannot. WA Cares has meant decreased wages for a benefit many will never see. 

Part-timers are just one of many groups of workers who might not qualify for the long-term-care benefit that the state’s misleading marketing suggests they will. To be eligible, workers must pay the tax for 10 or more years without a break of five or more years. They also need to be health-qualified for assistance with at least three activities of daily life. 

WA Cares is not a safety net for people needing financial help with long-term care. Medicaid is. WA Cares is a cost-shift to help the state’s mismanaged budget and a way to make taxpayers pay the wages of caregivers. One of the most disappointing things about WA Cares is that it will force low-income workers to pay for the long-term-care services used by people with ample resources and no need for taxpayer help. That’s backward.

Lawmakers won’t repeal the law that created WA Cares and required a payroll tax to fund the program. A Democratic-led Legislature wouldn’t even consider the idea. If voters don’t make participation in WA Cares optional, as they have an opportunity to do in November with Initiative 2124, lawmakers should at least stop taking money from people who are paying payroll taxes for WA Cares but not earning eligibility.

Elizabeth New (Hovde) is a policy analyst and the director of the Centers for Health Care and Worker Rights at the Washington Policy Center. She is a Clark County resident.

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