Will The Nation’s Capital Become a National Leader on Paid Leave?

Originally published in The American Prospect on October 13, 2016.
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The clock is ticking, and pressure is mounting for the D.C. City Council to vote on the Universal Paid Leave Act of 2015—a bill, that, if approved, would become the most progressive paid leave law in the country. Originally introduced last October, the measure has to be voted on by the end of 2016 lest it die in committee.

The United States is the only industrialized nation in the world to not offer paid leave, and only 12 percent of U.S. workers are currently entitled to it through their employer. While Congress passed the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993—which offers new parents and those with sick family members the right to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave from their jobs—even this law covers only about 60 percent of the workforce, and many eligible workers simply cannot afford to take unpaid time off.

In light of these realities, some states have taken paid family leave into their own hands. Four—California, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and New York—have passed their own paid leave laws, and some cities are following suit.

Washington, D.C., would be the first jurisdiction to create a paid family and medical leave program entirely from scratch. The four states that have passed paid family leave have had the advantage of adding the benefit onto their existing temporary disability programs—something only five states have. As such, California, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and New York were able to incorporate paid family leave relatively easily into their existing state welfare systems.

Joanna Blotner, a Jews United for Justice organizer advocating for the paid leave bill, says that D.C.’s lack of existing infrastructure actually provides the city with an opportunity to become a real national leader on paid leave. “We can build a top-rate program unencumbered by outdated systems,” she says. “And if we can create a paid leave program in D.C., it can be done anywhere.”

Jews United for Justice has been the anchor organization for the Campaign for Paid Family Leave—a coalition of more than 180 businesses, community groups, and advocacy organizations working together to pass the Universal Paid Leave Act. While the legislation was introduced in 2015, the roots of the campaign actually stretch back to the summer of 2014, when Jews United for Justice leaders began exploring potential campaigns. In September of 2014, the D.C.-based Jewish activist group voted to focus on promoting paid family leave.

The organization spent the next eight months figuring out what other jurisdictions were doing around paid leave, assessing who else would be interested in getting involved locally, and studying what would be legally viable in a city like Washington, D.C.

Preliminary conversations for the bill began in May of 2015, and advocates spent the rest of the summer working to flesh out the legislative language with the bill’s co-sponsors, councilmembers Elissa Silverman and David Grosso. (Silverman is an alumna of Jews United for Justice.)

The bill currently being considered looks a little different from the legislation originally introduced last October, which would have allowed employees to take up to 16 weeks a year off from their jobs. (California and New Jersey offer just six weeks of paid leave.) The D.C. legislation has since reduced its proposed leave to just 12 weeks, which is how much New York’s program provides for.

The city council held three hearings on paid leave over the past year—an unusually high number for local legislation. The final hearing, in February, ran past midnight, with more than 100 people turning out to testify in support.

Paid family leave is popular, both locally and nationally. In D.C., Public Policy Polling found that 80 percent of D.C voters agreed that the city needed paid family leave, and a Washington Post poll found that 82 percent of D.C voters supported the paid leave legislation in front of the city council.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has also endorsed paid family leave at the national level, announcing support for it during the first major speech of her campaign. Clinton wants to push for 12 weeks of paid leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act, and in aWashington Post op-ed published in May, she wrote she “strongly supports” the paid leave proposal in front of the D.C City Council.

If elected, Clinton might need support from congressional Republicans to push paid leave forward, unless the Democrats manage to win both congressional houses next month—no easy task. The GOP has generally been loath to support social programs that require raising taxes, and Clinton says she would fund paid leave by taxing the wealthy. (Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representative Rosa DeLauro, on the other hand, introduced a bill in 2013 that would fund paid leave through a small tax on employers and workers, which is essentially the way it’s funded in California and New York.) Still, this past September, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump came out in support of a paid maternity leave program (albeit one that targeted middle-class rather than poorer families), a sign that perhaps the political winds even in parts of the GOP are changing.

D.C.’s Universal Paid Leave Act would be funded through small employer contributions—up to 1 percent of a worker’s salary—into a citywide fund. Self-employed workers would pay directly into the program, though they would have the option to opt out if they wanted. A citywide pool of coverage, advocates say, means a more affordable contribution rate for everyone.

Opposition to D.C.’s paid family leave bill has come from unsurprising sources: the business lobby, representing large corporations and trade associations like the D.C. Nightlife Hospitality Association, the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, and the Consortium of Universities, representing D.C. area colleges. These critics generally focus on the legislation’s costs and potential consequences. The D.C. Chamber of Commerce says it “would make the District of Columbia dangerously uncompetitive.” The Washington Post editorial board argues the bill “goes way too far.” A number of small businesses, by contrast, have been strongly supportive of the Universal Paid Leave Act.

Some D.C. residents have worried that such a generous paid leave program could lead to fraud and abuse. The legislation calls for reimbursing 100 percent of wages up to $1,000 a week, and 50 percent of wages above that amount. In other words, the less you earn, the higher percentage of your earnings you’d get back—a key progressive feature of the bill.

But Blotner of Jews United for Justice thinks that many of these concerns about fraud stem from misconceptions regarding how insurance applications works. “To be certified or approved for family or medical leave, you’d have to submit medical paper work, birth certificates, and more for your unique situation,” she says. “All that is then cross-referenced by medical coding and expert advice of professionals. Insurance programs are likely to deter and catch fraud better than a paid leave benefit offered in-house by a company.”

The D.C Chamber of Commerce and the Consortium of Universities recently came out with their own paid leave proposal, a plan that would require all businesses to offer workers eight weeks of paid leave at 100 percent of their paycheck, but to pay for it how they see fit.

Advocates of the Universal Paid Leave Act say this alternative would make it harder for small businesses to participate, since big companies can afford to purchase large disability insurance plans. Councilmembers Grosso and Silverman also say this plan would lack an enforcement mechanism, and would be less efficient than a program administered by the city.

The D.C. City Council failed to vote on the paid leave bill before breaking for recess this past summer, but the odds that the council will vote on paid leave in some form look pretty good. Councilmembers recently tabled a fair-scheduling bill, largely because they didn’t want to overload employers with too many new costs at once. Just how progressive the final legislation will be remains to be seen, as the council is still making final changes to the bill. Paid leave supporters would like to see councilmembers adopt broader definitions of “family” to ensure that all sorts of important relationships would be covered, including parents, grandparents, siblings, and cohabitating partners. And advocates worry that D.C. residents who work outside the city, and those who work for the federal government, may also be excluded from coverage.

Nevertheless, if the city council does move forward with a new universal program, one that particularly addresses the needs of low-wage workers, it will mark a significant leap forward for paid leave, not just in the District but also across the country.

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