In late December, the Washington, DC city council passed what would be the country’s most generous paid family leave program. And on Wednesday, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser declined to veto it, thus allowing it to go into law. The final step lies with Congress, which has 30 days to review it and potentially take action before the law can take effect and benefits can be paid out by 2020.
Bowser had publicly questioned the bill, particularly the cost to implement it. While in her letter sending the bill back to the council without a veto she said that “DC families should have time to care for themselves and their loved ones,” she listed a number of “grave concerns” about the legislation, including the small increase in payroll taxes that will be levied to fund the benefits, the fact that it will cover people who work in DC but live in Maryland and Virginia, and the cost to set it up. She pledged to work with the council to “overcome” these issues.
Businesses will pay a slight 0.62 percent increase in payroll taxes to pay into the fund. Then employees can earn up to 90 percent of their regular salary, capped at $1,000 a week, when they take time off. The length of the leave depends on what a worker needs it for: eight weeks for the arrival of a new child, six weeks to care for a sick family member, and two weeks of leave to tend to a personal illness. It will eventually cover about 530,000 workers.
Those benefits are a good deal more generous than what’s been enacted in the four other states that guarantee paid family leave. New York will eventually guarantee 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, but workers will get just two-thirds of their pay up to a cap of about $870 a week. California and New Jersey ensure only six weeks with even lower benefit caps, while Rhode Island guarantees four.
The amount of money workers can expect while on leave matters: it’s harder for low-paid workers to take lengthy breaks from work if they can’t expect full paychecks during that time. Yet they’re the ones who need guaranteed paid leave the most. Just 12 percent of Americans get the benefit from their employers, and the less someone makes, the less likely he is to get it.
Some DC lawmakers had originally aimed for 16 weeks of paid leave. Other places are pushing further: Washington State lawmakers recently introduced a bill that would guarantee six months of paid family leave with a $1,000 weekly cap that would be increased every year as average weekly wages rose. The length of leave also matters, particularly for health outcomes: Anything short of six months is likely to miss out on the benefits for mothers and infants that have been found in scientific research.
Most Americans, though, can only expect to take 12 weeks of unpaid time off for a new child or serious illness, and even that guarantee leaves out about 40 percent of the workforce. Virtually every other country, on the other hand, guarantees some form of maternity leave and most developed countries include fathers as well.