After 14-Month Discussion, D.C. Council Approves Paid Family Leave

People who work in Washington, D.C. will receive some much-needed relief after the Council late Tuesday approved one of the most generous paid leave policies in the nation.

D.C. Council member David Grosso told Rewire the measure wasn’t “revolutionary new stuff,” but simply a way to help bring D.C. and the United States up to speed with the vast majority of developed countries, like France and Germany. David Grosso / YouTube

Joanna Blotner, a DC-area worker, had to leave her father alone in a hospital after he began suffering from temporary paralysis caused by Guillain-Barré syndrome.

Although she had “a good job at a progressive nonprofit,” she told Rewire, she feared what might happen if she requested time off to care for her loved one.

“A big part of why I didn’t ask for leave was because I was too ashamed and scared,” said Blotner, now the campaign manager for the DC Paid Family Leave Campaign. Paid leave proponents have cited disciplinary action, demotion, wage loss, and even job loss as potential dangers employees face when they request leave, paid or unpaid.

People who work in D.C. and face dilemmas similar to Blotner’s will likely receive some much-needed relief after the D.C. Council late Tuesday approved one of the most generous paid leave policies in the nation.

The 13-member group voted 9 to 4 in favor of the Universal Paid Leave Amendment Act of 2016 during its final legislative meeting of the year.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, who has been critical of the bill in the past, has not indicated whether she will veto the bill; she has ten calendar days, excluding weekends and holidays, to do so.

If Bowser opts to veto the measure, two-thirds of the council could override her decision.

The bill will offer part-time and full-time employees who work in D.C. eight weeks of paid leave following childbirth, adoption, or new foster-care arrangement; six weeks to care for sick relatives; and two weeks of personal medical leave.

The measure will not cover people who work for the federal or D.C. government, the latter of whom already receive eight weeks of paid parental leave. The program will also take precedence over existing leave policies offered by employers, though companies can offer additional leave if they’d like.

Following the legislation’s passage, a member of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors told WAMU that the business group will push to amend, and even repeal, the bill. Advocates, however, are skeptical.

“It certainly feels like a hollow threat,” Blotner told Rewire in an interview Wednesday. “I don’t know where they’re going to get the votes to undermine or weaken the program. It would be nice to work with them going forward to create a robust program that works for businesses.”

D.C. Council members Elissa Silverman and David Grosso originally introduced the paid leave measure in October 2015. That version of the bill boasted up to 16 weeks of paid family and medical leave.

During that time, Grosso told Rewire the measure wasn’t “revolutionary new stuff,” but simply a way to help bring D.C. and the United States up to speed with the vast majority of developed countries, like France and Germany. New York and California are among the small handful of states that have passed paid leave legislation in recent years.

If the bill is enacted, D.C. employers will fund the benefit through a 0.62 percent payroll tax, covering leave for more than a half-million people who work in the city. People who work for less than one-and-a-half times the D.C. minimum wage—$46,000—will receive 90 percent of their weekly paycheck while on leave. Above that, higher-paid workers will receive 50 percent of the rest of their wage, up to a $1000 weekly maximum.

Sixty-four percent of people who work in D.C. commute to the city from Maryland and Virginia; the bill will include them too. Proponents have argued that including non-D.C. residents who work in the city is necessary to make the pool of beneficiaries big enough to sustain the program. Though some D.C. residents work outside of the district, Blotner told Rewire that the bill would still cover “the vast majority” of D.C. residents.

Jennifer Tucker, an advisor to the Black Women’s Roundtable Civic Engagement Network, told Rewire in a phone interview that people who work for low incomes, like child-care providers, would benefit from the paid leave measure the most.

Tucker, a D.C. native who has been a caretaker for her now-deceased mother and sister in recent years, cited a recent Washington Post article noting that child-care workers, on average, earn less than $30,000 annually and are among “the lowest-paid professionals in the city.”

Many of these workers, Tucker said, couldn’t afford to take unpaid time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, the federal law that entitles people who work at businesses with 50 or more employees to job protection and unpaid leave for qualified medical and family reasons.

“Women often are forced to come back after a couple weeks or quit and start all over again,” Tucker said. “That’s no pathway to the middle class.”

U.S. Census data from 2015 indicates single mothers make up 42 percent of D.C. households.

D.C. officials estimate the paid leave measure will generate nearly $250 million per year in payroll tax and would cost at least $40 million to build infrastructure to manage the program. Should it be enacted, the program would likely be ready in 2020.