Bryce Covert, October 6, 2015
On Tuesday, seven city councilmembers in the District of Columbia will introduce a paid family leave bill that would create the most progressive system in the country and serve as a model for other cities that might be interested in paid leave. If it eventually gets passed and signed into law, it would be the first city-level program in the country.
The bill, spearheaded by Councilmembers David Grosso (I) and Elissa Silverman (I), would pay out 16 weeks of wages during a leave for a new baby or to care for a sick family member for those who both live in the District as well as those who live elsewhere but work there. That’s in line with the district’s current 16 weeks of unpaid but job guaranteed leave, but more generous than the 12 weeks in Congressional Democrats’ paid family leave bill and what’s offered in the three states that have implemented paid leave programs, which range from six to eight weeks.
Workers would also be able to avail themselves of a generous benefit. They would get fully reimbursed for the first $1,000 of their weekly pay, and then if they make more than that would get 50 percent of the next $1,000. The federal leave bill that’s been introduced by Democratic lawmakers, for instance, only replaces two-thirds of workers’ income, capped at $1,000 a week, and the three states that have implemented paid family leave have similar policies. “For the lowest-wage workers and even those in the middle class, especially in jurisdictions with a very high cost of living like Washington, D.C., it’s very difficult to make ends meet on a salary, and it’s impossible to make ends meet on half of a salary,” explained Kitty Richards, who works on Councilmember Silverman’s staff and was involved with the paid family leave bill. “We’ve seen that low-wage workers really struggle to take leave that’s paid out at a low rate.”
The funding structure for the program would also look slightly different given some of the unique circumstances in D.C. The district can’t mandate what the federal government offers its employees, so workers who either reside outside of the District or those who work for the federal government will have to pay into the fund through a payroll tax. But all other employers within the district will also pay a small tax — probably around 1 percent — into the fund.
D.C. has already passed some policies near and dear to progressives’ hearts: it raised its minimum wage to $11.50 by 2016, passed paid sick leave in 2008 and then strengthened it in 2014, and guaranteed eight weeks of paid family leave for city government employees late last year. (Tuesday’s paid family leave bill will also propose extending city employees’ paid family leave to 16 weeks to match all other employees’.)
Those efforts, particularly paid leave for city employees, inspired Grosso to find a way to implement paid family leave for all workers in the area. “Always in the back of my mind was, ‘How can we extend this to the private sector as well?'” he said.
His quest got a boost last year when the Department of Labor awarded the district with a $96,000 grant to study implementing paid family leave. That money allowed D.C. to get an accurate read of the costs and benefits of implementing a program. It also helped propel the effort forward. “Grants from the federal government are creating momentum and excitement and policy expertise around the issue,” noted Richards.
They’ll need that momentum moving forward to make sure the bill becomes reality. After its introduction Tuesday morning, it will get referred to committee and then will come hearings and input before it actually gets a vote. At least four councilmembers have already signed onto the bill with Grosso and Silverman, but they’ll have to work to get everyone on board. “It’s definitely a marathon, not a sprint,” Silverman noted. “Getting to the introduction is kind of like getting to the half marathon mark.”
“The main issue is to make sure that what moves forward is a really strong bill, that we don’t just pass something but pass something that’s really strong,” said Rebecca Ennen, development and communications director at Jews United for Justice, a group that has been deeply involved in pushing the bill forward.
Then Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) would have to sign it — she’s believed to be supportive — and the fund would have to be set up and fully funded before any District residents can actually take paid leave. If things go quickly and smoothly, Grosso estimates that the bill could be on the mayor’s desk within six months and, if it were signed, residents could start taking leave a year later.
Success won’t just mean guaranteeing benefits for D.C. residents. Those involved hope that the bill and the program design can be replicated elsewhere. While three states have paid family leave, the U.S. is an outlier among nearly the entire world for not guaranteeing paid maternity leave and among developed countries for not guaranteeing paid paternity leave. “I think we have the opportunity to set a standard here in the District and be a model,” Silverman said.
Grosso agrees. “We’re hoping to bring national attention to this so we can be a model for other jurisdictions getting this done at the local level,” he noted. While the vast majority of paid sick leave bills have passed at the city level, all paid family leave programs have been statewide. But D.C.’s effort might inspire other cities to take it up.