D.C. passes one of the nation’s most generous paid leave policies

The D.C. Council voted Tuesday to tax businesses to provide parents and caretakers with guaranteed paid leave.

D.C. resident Diana Alvord and her three-month-old daughter came to watch the City Council vote on a historic paid family leave bill that would benefit parents like her. CREDIT: Alice Ollstein
D.C. resident Diana Alvord and her three-month-old daughter came to watch the City Council vote on a historic paid family leave bill that would benefit parents like her. CREDIT: Alice Ollstein

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A divided D.C. City Council approved a bill on Tuesday that will give working parents in the nation’s capital one of the most generous universal paid leave policies in the nation. If Mayor Muriel Bowser signs the bill, more than half a million private-sector workers in the city will be eligible for up to eight weeks of paid maternity or paternity leave, up to six weeks of paid family leave, and up to two weeks of paid medical leave. Workers would earn up to 90 percent of their normal salary for 11 weeks, with a limit of $1,000 a week.

On Tuesday, dozens of supporters of the policy dressed in bright red and packed the Council chambers ahead of the historic vote. Among them was District resident Diana Kelly Alvord, who told ThinkProgress she became an advocate for paid leave after her son was born more than four months premature. While her son was in newborn intensive care, she used up the four weeks of paid leave her company provided, a few more weeks of short-term disability, and all her unused vacation and sick leave.

“I ran out of all of that before my son could even breathe on his own, much less come home, she said. “And once he came home, he needed more outpatient surgeries.”

Alvord ended up taking unpaid leave — which is guaranteed by federal law — in order to care for her son. “But what that meant is that we deferred my student loans, we sold our car, and we racked up credit card debt,” she said. “It wasn’t a choice, it was what my son needed.”

The Council has debated the policy — which about 80 percent of D.C. residents support — for more than a year. It’s based on a model used by California, New York, New Jersey, and a host of other countries, in which all businesses pay a payroll tax of 0.62 percent into a government-managed fund that pays out benefits to workers as needed. Proponents say this provides stability and predictability to workers and businesses, and shares the cost fairly among large and small employers.

“We would have liked to see even more weeks,” Alvord said. “Every time the Council has debated this, they’ve shaved off more and more. But since we have none now, I would take this as a good first step. Let’s start somewhere and build up.”

“Let’s start somewhere and build up.”

Almost every nation in the world guarantees workers some form of paid maternity leave, but the United States offers none.

Pointing to her three-month-old daughter who was snoozing in a carrier strapped to her front, Alvord said: “I would hope by the time she is my age this isn’t even an issue anymore. It’ll be just a basic part of your job like worker’s comp.”

But a coalition of local universities, the Chamber of Commerce, and the mayor herself oppose the policy, arguing it would create more government bureaucracy and would push businesses to offset the new tax by hiring fewer workers or paying them less.

“We don’t need another D.C. government agency,” said Councilmember Jack Evans. “And to put a tax out there on businesses is not a responsible approach.”

Yet a study by the D.C. Budget Office found, after reviewing hundreds of peer-reviewed studies on family leave, that these fears are unfounded. The report found that the policy would have “minimal” impact on the local economy over the next 10 years. Businesses in the states that already have the policy — California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and soon, New York — have reported either no change or a positive outcome from giving their workers this benefit, including “improved customer service, reduced employee turnover, and lower recruitment and training costs.”

The business groups and their allies on the council pushed for an alternate plan — which was defeated Tuesday — that ordered an employer mandate instead of a tax. All D.C. businesses would have to offer leave to their employees and pay the cost of it in-house. Small businesses that struggle to afford this cost could apply for a tax credit from the city.

Independent Councilmember Dave Grosso called this alternative proposal “untested, under-researched, and irresponsible,” while Democratic Councilmember Elissa Silverman called it a “cynical ploy” to kill the paid leave bill. They argued that the alternative included no funding for enforcement and nothing to prevent businesses from firing or refusing to hire workers likely to need leave.

“This makes the workplace ripe for discrimination, against women and people with disabilities of all kinds,” said Grosso. “It will increase the need for enforcement officers.”

Opponents of the paid leave bill also criticized it for covering thousands of workers who live in Maryland or Virginia. Yet Silverman told ThinkProgress that D.C. would still reap the benefits. “District businesses benefit whether people live in the District, in Maryland, or in Virginia,” she said. “The benefits in worker productivity, reduced employee turnover, helps the businesses.”

Others have pointed out that limiting the benefits to D.C. residents would motivate businesses to only hire workers that live in neighboring states, hurting local residents.

The bill covering all who work in D.C. now goes to Mayor Bowser, who has publicly criticized its cost and the new bureaucracy it would entail. Advocates for the policy will now begin pressuring her to sign it into law.

UPDATE: Mayor Bowser released a statement Tuesday night blasting the Council’s bill, calling it “ill-considered, a situation we are likely to regret, and not the best way to go.” But she stopped short of threatening a veto, and the bill can become a law without her signature.