DC Council Considers Paid Family Leave Bill

The Council of the District of Columbia is considering the Universal Paid Leave Act of 2015, a bill that would guarantee 16 weeks of paid leave to all employees in the District who are parents of newborn babies — the most generous bill with regards to paid family and medical leave in the country.

The act’s proposed paid leave also covers adoptions, recovery from military deployment and serious illness of the employee or a family member.

Currently, three states — California, New Jersey and Rhode Island — have paid leave programs, though the maximum benefit is six weeks of partial paid leave.

Seven councilmembers, including its co-authors Councilmember Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) and Councilmember David Grosso (I-At Large), introduced the bill at the D.C. Chamber of Commerce Government Affairs Committee on Sept. 10.

“Only 12 percent of Americans have paid family leave,” Silverman wrote in an email to The Hoya. “Only 4 percent of low-income people have paid family leave. People shouldn’t have to choose between medical care and a paycheck. The bill allows people to spend time with their loved ones when it counts most — when a new child enters their family, in the last days of a parent’s life — and to care for themselves should they fall seriously ill.”

For the bill to pass and become law, it must have a hearing, be assigned to a committee and be approved by the Committee of the Whole, which includes all 13 members of the council. If approved, it will be put up for a vote at two full council legislative meetings and subsequently signed by the mayor.

Although the bill has the support of Councilmembers Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1), LaRuby May (D-Ward 8), Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) and Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) in addition to Silverman and Grosso, the D.C. Chamber of Commerce has declined to support it.

In a letter to Grosso, Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Harry Wingo outlined the Chamber’s concerns with the bill.

“There is a prevalent problem that needs legislative remedy and attempts to give an employee a benefit in a vacuum without looking at the total benefit scheme,” Wingo wrote. “None of those programs are funded solely by the employer. The Chamber believes this bill would be unprecedented and make the District of Columbia dangerously uncompetitive at a time when the District is trying to compete for every job it can get.”

Grosso maintained that the consequences of the bill for employers would be short-term.

“In the long term, this will improve workers’ productivity, families’ bonding and cohesion, improve public health measures and help our youngest residents do better in school,” Grosso wrote in an email to The Hoya. “In the short term, it will be an additional tax on businesses and some residents, but the long-term effects will outweigh that downside. The main opposition has been to the small tax on businesses, but as I’ve said, I think that complaint is short-sighted.”

In the private sector, the program would be funded entirely by employers. On the other hand, workers in the federal government, those who reside outside the District and those who are self-employed would pay into the program themselves through payroll taxes.

Harry Holzer, an associate professor in the McCourt School of Public Policy and former U.S. Department of Labor chief economist, said he is concerned about the consequences of increased burdens on employers.

“I think paid leave is a good thing for families and for children, particularly for low-income children,” Holzer said. “But I’m worried because I think that D.C. City Council is imposing a lot of mandates on employers. There’s a bunch of things that are already implemented or under consideration. Every time you put another restriction or rule on employers, you’re raising the cost of hiring in the city.”

Holzer predicted dramatic repercussions for both employees and their employers if the bill passes.

“In economic theory, there are a couple of things that employers can do,” Holzer said. “Number one, they can take the money out of workers’ paychecks, which I think in a lot of cases, they will do. Secondly, they just won’t hire as much. Or thirdly, they’ll move across the river to Arlington, Va., which is not imposing all these standards.”

He also expressed uncertainty about the balance between costs and benefits for both employers and their employees.

“I am torn because I do think that paid leave is generally a good thing,” Holzer said. “But it has to be balanced against other goals, like making sure that D.C. residents have jobs and not driving employers away.”

Paid Family Leave Campaign Manager Joanna Blotner said that she thinks the program will attract workers to the District.

“The reality is that businesses chose to locate in D.C. because we’re a very unique jurisdiction,” Blotner said. “If you’re doing government services or advocacy, you want to be in D.C. Our hope for this program is that you’re actually going to see a lot more people wanting to move to the District and wanting to stay in the District long-term.”

Blotner also addressed the impact this legislation could have on employees’ salaries.

“Ultimately, will this cost be passed on to the employee in some way?” Blotner said. “My guess is yes. The benefits package that you’re going to receive from a D.C. employer is going to be a lot higher because of this kind of a program. So your base salary might reflect that.”

She added that even if D.C.’s program is approved, it is just one contribution to a national concern.

“I think D.C. has the opportunity to really set a new national standard on this issue,” Blotner said. “But I think it’s important to remember what was done and what was created with this program really represents the bare minimum of what we need.”

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