The District of Columbia is poised to enact the most generous paid leave policy in the country under legislation introduced last Tuesday at the D.C. Council.
Coauthored by lawmakers Elissa Silverman and David Grosso, a pair of progressive independents, the Universal Paid Leave Act would give workers access to 16 weeks of compensated time off annually for “personal medical care, child births or adoptions, and circumstances requiring time serving as a primary caregiver.”
“The outpouring of support for this is from people who have had to make a choice between caring for a loved one or bonding with their child and getting a paycheck,” Silverman said in an interview.
Liberals have cheered the legislation, which already has the backing of most D.C. Council members. However, the bill does face opposition from members of the business community and skepticism from some Democratic elected officials, including Mayor Muriel Bowser.
Under the bill, employees making up to $52,000 a year would receive benefits equivalent to their full pay. Those making higher salaries would get as much as $3,000 per week. The money would come out of a newly created public fund, generated by taxing D.C. employers. According to Silverman’s office, “small contributions would be paid by employers, similar to unemployment insurance, with a portion of D.C. residents not covered by an employer contribution paying into the fund no more than one percent of their wages.” The Washington Post described how employer contributions would be calculated on a sliding scale:
Law firms, lobbying groups and others with the District’s highest-paid workers would pay the equivalent of 1 percent of the salaries of employees who earn above $150,000, or about $1,500 annually per worker. On the low end, employers of minimum wage workers, who now earn $10.50 per hour, would have to contribute 0.6 percent of each worker’s pay, or about $131 per employee per year.
Silverman’s office stressed that program will cover “everyone living or working in the District”:
This includes people who work for the federal government, are members of the military, work in Maryland or Virginia, and those who are self-employed. Residents not covered by an employer contribution to the paid leave fund will make a personal contribution of 1 percent or less of wages, which will be collected through a mechanism similar to the D.C. income tax. Self-employed residents will be able to opt out of the program; coverage will be universal for all other D.C. residents.
Elaborating on that last point, Silverman aide Ari Weisbard said in an interview, “The one group that’s allowed to opt out is the self-employed individuals, and the legislation has some very careful procedures in place to stop them from gaming the system.”
Asked more broadly about preventing fraud and abuse in the program, Silverman said there would be safeguards against those outcomes, primarily crafted later on by the D.C. government’s executive branch. However, she urged InsideSources not to focus on the potential for malfeasance. “This is a line of inquiry, I think, to distract people from what the main focus is,” she said. “This is going to benefit thousands and thousands of people.”
Many Washingtonians clearly are excited about the legislation. The Post reported that dozens of supporters showed up for last Tuesday’s D.C. Council hearing on the bill, “including parents, small-business owners and union members.”
Yet some in the business community are nervous. “Our concern is that this is going to cost jobs, and it’s bad for the business climate,” said Harry Wingo of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce during last Wednesday’s Kojo Nnamdi Show. “We want D.C. workers to be able to care for their families, but more importantly we want D.C. workers to have jobs in the first place.”
That argument didn’t move Silverman or Grosso, both of whom also appeared on the WAMU radio program. Responding to Wingo’s concern that their law would be way out of step with the rest of the country, Grosso said, “Sometimes I think it’s important for us to lead. I think it’s important for politicians and policymakers to step out and say this is the right thing to do.”
In addition to Silverman, at least five other lawmakers on the 13-member D.C. Council agree with Grosso, having co-introduced the bill. But a spokesman for Mayor Bowser sounded cautious about the legislation in a statement to the Post: “We support the sentiment,” Mike Czin said, “but we have concerns about the fiscal impact on District government.”
Another skeptic is Democratic Council member Jack Evans, a frequent ally of the business community, who has voiced concerns about overburdening companies.
Advocates of paid leave have long said it would help business in many ways, most obviously by boosting employees’ well-being. The District bill was developed with the support of the U.S. Department of Labor.