D.C. Workers Could Soon Get 16 Weeks of Paid Family and Medical Leave

If the Universal Paid Leave Act of 2015 passes, almost everyone who works in the District of Columbia will qualify for up to 16 weeks of paid family and medical leave.

If the Universal Paid Leave Act of 2015 passes, almost everyone who works in the District of Columbia will qualify for up to 16 weeks of paid family and medical leave. Shutterstock

Paid family leave may be going nowhere on Capitol Hill, but Washington, D.C.’s local government just introduced the nation’s most ambitious family leave proposal.

If the Universal Paid Leave Act of 2015 passes, almost everyone who works in the District of Columbia will qualify for up to 16 weeks of paid family and medical leave. They can use that time to bond with a new baby or an adopted child, care for a sick relative, or deal with their own serious health condition.

The bill is also written to be LGBTQ-inclusive and to account for the health needs of military families.

The exact costs are still being calculated, but the program will be funded by a progressive payroll tax on employers equivalent to 1 percent or less of each employee’s salary. The District isn’t allowed to tax either the federal government or commuters from other states, so federal employees who live in Virginia and Maryland aren’t included. Federal employees who live in D.C. would pay into the fund themselves, and self-employed people can choose to pay into the program in order to receive the benefit.

“It’s the right thing to do,” D.C. Councilmember David Grosso told Rewire. “The more we support families—the more we support people being engaged with bringing up children, with caring for loved ones who are getting older—the better city we’re going to be.”

It also gives the District a “competitive edge,” Grosso said, because the benefit will attract talented workers to the area.

Grosso co-wrote the legislation with Councilmember Elissa Silverman, and the bill was introduced with seven co-sponsors on the 13-member council. Grosso said he expects the bill will get a hearing before the end of the year, and that once it passes, workers could expect to start drawing benefits in early to mid-2017.

California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island have paid leave insurance programs, but D.C.’s program is much more generous than any of them.

Whereas New Jersey and California offer six weeks of partially paid leave, the District’s plan would offer 16 weeks of fully paid leave for people who make less than $1,000 per week. People who make more than that can add 50 percent of whatever they make over $1,000, with the benefit capped at $3,000.

The District already guarantees a person’s job for up to 16 weeks of unpaid leave, but workers must have been with a company for either 1,000 hours or one year. This bill would reduce that to six months or 500 hours, helping to expand the new paid leave benefit to more low-income, short-term, and part-time workers who would most risk losing their job if they take time off.

These provisions help ensure that the benefit will be universal, and not just favor white-collar workers who may already have generous leave benefits. Low-income people who can’t afford a partial paycheck could take the leave they need, and small businesses that can’t afford a generous leave program could offer that benefit for a low cost. Businesses that already have generous leave programs could actually save money, Grosso noted.

Other paid leave insurance proposals split the cost between employers and employees. But because D.C. isn’t allowed to levy a commuter tax on people who live in Virginia or Maryland but work in the District, the funds had to come from employers in order to cover those workers.

The local Chamber of Commerce opposes the legislation, but Grosso said he isn’t worried. He said businesses are savvy enough to realize that they can pass on some of the costs to their workers if need be, and the bill doesn’t prohibit that. He thinks it’s good for businesses, because the benefits will make them more competitive and they’ll have happier, more loyal, more productive workers.

“I think the benefits here outweigh any kind of burden that the businesses might think they’re going to have,” Grosso said.

States and municipalities have led the way on paid leave in recent years, and advocates hope that growing momentum at the local level will help light a fire under Congress to pass national legislation. The Obama administration has been doing all it can to push for national paid leave despite a recalcitrant GOP-led Congress, using tools like research grants for localities to study the effects of paid leave and executive orders that affect federal workers.

The United States is the only developed country that doesn’t offer some kind of national paid maternity leave policy. Advocates are also pushing for paid paternity leave, since worldwide research shows benefits to families when fathers are more equally involved in child care early on.

D.C.’s bill applies to any new parent, and includes an expansive definition of “family member.”

“People say this is revolutionary new stuff,” Grosso said. “It really isn’t. Around the world they do this, and give a lot of respect to building strong families. In this country we’re just way behind the times.”