The District of Columbia Universal Paid Leave Act, which would give people working in D.C. paid leave to care for a baby or ill relative, received the endorsement of D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) on Feb. 11, a major step forward for the bill.
The bill was spearheaded by Council members David Grosso (I-At Large) and Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), and if implemented, would allow workers in the District paid time off to care for a newborn, ailing relative or themselves if they were to fall ill.
Despite the newfound support, Mayor Muriel Bowser has expressed opposition to the bill because of its cost to taxpayers and the lack of decision-making input given to the mayor’s office by the D.C. Council.
Mendelson issued a new draft of the legislation at a council hearing Feb. 11, which reworked the bill to make it more economically viable and more attractive to taxpayers.
His changes include reducing the amount of paid leave from 16 weeks to 12 weeks, decreasing the percentage that high-income earners are eligible to receive and restricting the leave of those with chronic and mental illnesses. Additionally, Mendelson’s draft requires employees to prove a legal relationship with the person for whom they are caring.
If enacted, the act would make D.C. a more generous place in the United States for workers to take time off, even with Mendelson’s cuts. According to The Washington Post, Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have both signaled support for the bill.
Grosso said the bill plays a pivotal role in demonstrating the District’s regard for its workers.
“This is something I think is very important and necessary for our city. In fact, in the long run I think it’s important for our entire country,” Grosso said. “This is the next step for creating a country and a city that respects families for real.”
In addition to Bowser’s objections to the bill, other critics fear a negative impact on businesses. According to the proposal, District employers and residents would be required to pay 1 percent of payroll or income in taxes for the program. As an insurance-based model, the tax revenues would be put into a fund, into which employees could tap when in need.
In a testimony addressing the act at the council hearing, D.C. Chamber of Commerce Interim President and CEO Margaret Singleton expressed appreciation for the amendments made to the legislation but also raised new concerns.
“We note that it still creates a new paid time off entitlement program administered by the government; it still makes the District of Columbia less competitive and attractive for businesses; it still supports itself by enforcing a maximum 1-percent tax on D.C. businesses; and it does not credit the businesses who already offer paid leave and benefit programs equal to or greater than what the program mandates,” Singleton said. “These concerns, the bill’s costs, and its negative impact on the business community have yet to be fully addressed.”
Singleton also expressed concern for D.C. businesses and employers, who would be required to pay the 1 percent tax.
“The D.C. Chamber of Commerce and its members want to ensure that their employees are able to take care of themselves and their families,” Singleton said. “We consider our employees our most valuable assets and resources.”
However, D.C. Paid Family Leave campaign manager Joanna Blotner maintained that businesses would benefit from the legislation, citing increased incentives for workers to seek employment in the District because of the generous leave.
“I think we’ve heard from the small businesses who are supporting our campaign that it really has the opposite impact to what the chamber claims,” Blotner said.
“With D.C. being on the front lines of providing really strong paid family medical programs, we’re creating an economy where D.C. jobs now provide the best benefits in the country. That increases the talent pool, the competitiveness and the market for these businesses. When we’re talking about recruitment and retention, this gives our D.C. economy a huge leg up.”
Mendelson similarly expressed hope that the act will attract new workers to the District in a press release published Feb. 11.
“I think the preferred perspective on the legislation is that we should be looking at what we can do that is business-friendly for the District and maximizes benefit for workers,” Mendelson said. “We have the opportunity, through this legislation, that if we strike the right balance, it will make the city more attractive to employers because it will be more attractive to employees through the benefit package that this bill would provide.”
However, Blotner also criticized various aspects of Mendelson’s cuts, including the strict definitions of a legal relationship with family members receiving care from employees.
“On the family definition side, the bill currently says that a family member is defined by legal custody, domestic partnership or marriage or a foster child. While that is all well and good for people that fall into those boundaries, it still excludes a lot of people,” Blotner said. “Siblings, grandparents and adult children are left out.”
According to current D.C. job-protection laws, employers cannot replace an employee on leave for at least 16 weeks after the worker begins his time off, a policy upon which Grosso builds in his proposal.
“This is just creating a mechanism so that when workers are out for that time, which they already have a right to be out for, they don’t go bankrupt,” Grosso said.
In its current state, the bill would cover the entirety of the private sector workforce.
The pay replacement would be 90 percent for those making up to double minimum wage and would scale down for those making above that point. This mechanism ensures that the people who are most in need of financial resources have their highest pay replaced.
Blotner emphasized the importance of the act in providing security to families going through difficult times.
“The situation that we’re facing in the District is one where people are making these terrible choices between caring for themselves and their loved ones, or earning the money they need for providing for themselves, and we have an opportunity and a solution, a policy that can fix that,” Blotner said.
“The paid family leave policy is about creating a system that really allows people to take the time that they need to care for their families and care for themselves without risking the financial security that they need to be members of society and of the workforce.”
Despite the opposition, Grosso expressed continued confidence that the bill will pass, as it will benefit both employers and employees in the District.
“I think the business community is going to have to make an adjustment, but the fact is that this won’t be an enormous cost to them and they’ll get enormous benefit from it,” Grosso said. “Employees will be able to be paid to take time off and take care of the situations that they find themselves in, whether it’s a new baby or caring for their elderly parent, and that I think is a greater benefit than the loss that they’ll face having to pay into this fund.”