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Opinion Why my small business supports paid family leave

Dozens of parents with toddlers and people sat through a D.C. Council hearing to show support for a paid family leave bill at the John A. Wilson Building in October 2015. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The people of the District need access to paid family and medical leave, and even big business leaders know it. Recently, a consortium of business organizations, lobbyists and trade associations put forward a new proposal that they think is better than the Universal Paid Leave bill the D.C. Council is considering.

Under the Universal Paid Leave program, everyone who works in the District would be covered by one program, funded by a 1 percent tax on employers. Everyone would contribute a tiny bit on a predictable schedule, and everyone would get access to a benefit families urgently need.

Instead, local corporate lobbyists are proposing that each individual employer be required to provide paid family and medical leave out of pocket to their own employees – replacing the insurance-pool model that small business owners, including me, can afford and support.

I own a pizzeria in Anacostia. Soon after immigrating to the United States from Turkey, my childhood friend and I decided to go into business in hopes of achieving the American dream, creating jobs for a community desperately in need amid a slow economic recovery.

Five years later, the economy east of the river is still sluggish despite strong economic improvements in other parts of the District. When I talk to other small business owners in my community, I am acutely aware of how fortunate I am that my business is booming – thanks in no small part to my dedicated employees and a community that welcomed me with open arms. I wish I could afford to offer paid family leave to these employees. I wish everyone in my community had access to such a necessary lifeline in hard times. But, as a small business owner in an industry operating on small margins, I simply cannot afford to fund it on my own as big business lobbyists would have me do.

But I can afford a 1 percent payroll tax. That is why I support a citywide insurance pool. With just 1 percent of payroll from all businesses in the District, the city would provide my employees with access to paid family and medical leave at an extremely affordable and predictable cost that I can build into my business plan. The city would also manage and administer the program, freeing me up to actually run and grow my business. If the business lobby’s plan were enacted, I’d be left scrambling to come up with salaries every time an employee had a medical emergency, paying not only for an employee to be on leave but also for that position to be covered in some way; in effect, I’d be paying out months of double salaries when a need for leave arises, likely forfeiting my own pay to take care of my employees. I want my staff to have access to good benefits, but there is a right way for us to go about providing those benefits, and that plan is already pending before the D.C. Council.

It is worth noting, too, that unlike the Universal Paid Leave Act that covers everyone, the business lobby proposal leaves out people who work part-time or are in their first year on the job. Especially in sectors with high turnover, such as food service, a lot of employees wouldn’t ever get coverage. This would be particularly bad for people who earn low wages, who are the most likely to change jobs frequently, work part-time at multiple jobs and have no other resources when hard times hit. But it’s also bad for anyone who’s newer to the work world or trying to advance a career. You shouldn’t have to stay in the same job forever for fear of losing your benefits. And, as a restaurateur who depends of my customers’ disposable income to go out to eat from time to time, I want the greatest number of people to be covered by a paid leave program. And the more pathways to the middle class that the District builds, the more prosperity our local businesses will share.

The business lobby’s proposal for employers to pay directly for their employees’ leave may sound nice, but it’s motivated by a desire to save money for the District’s largest employers and corporations, hanging small- and medium-sized business owners like me out to dry. Continued prosperity and economic recovery in the District requires all businesses to pay their fair share and for all families to have access to dignified employment with good wages and quality benefits. We need the Universal Paid Leave Act, and we need it now.

Fatima Nayir is the co-owner of Mama’s Pizza in Anacostia and is a member of the DMV Small Business Alliance, a project of Main Street Alliance.