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D.C. reinstates covid leave for workers as council pushes for paid medical, prenatal absences

The John Wilson Building in Washington. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

D.C. officials Wednesday announced they are resuming paid coronavirus leave for city workers — a measure that comes as cases have surged in the region, leaving employees who test positive few options other than using their sick leave to isolate.

Meanwhile, a unanimous D.C. Council introduced legislation that would significantly expand paid-leave benefits for city workers, including new paid medical leave for qualifying ailments such as cancer.

The coronavirus leave, a stopgap measure to address a rapid rise in cases, will provide up to 80 hours of paid leave and ends April 2, according to a notice posted by the city’s Department of Human Resources. The city had offered the coronavirus leave earlier in the pandemic, but that program had ended, meaning employees who tested positive had to use sick or other leave while they isolated.

Providing D.C. government workers with more robust alternatives to sick leave helped in part spur the legislation introduced Wednesday that would expand non-coronavirus paid leave for them. At present, employees may take up to eight weeks of parental leave or family leave to care for a relative with a serious medical condition. The council’s proposal would add two entirely new benefits — paid medical leave for certain health conditions and two weeks of paid prenatal leave — while boosting the amount of paid leave for any purpose to a maximum of 12 weeks in a year, and 16 weeks over two years.

Council members Christina Henderson (I-At Large) and Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), who spearheaded the effort, say the proposed bill would offer D.C. government workers the most generous leave options in the region — and is a necessary move for the District to keep up with private-sector employers and the federal government, which have each seen expanded leave options in recent years.

“We’ve heard this from District government workers: that sick leave just isn’t enough. And they get put in a bind when they have more serious medical issues that they need to take time off for,” Silverman said. “The past two years have shown us the importance of making sure that workers have paid leave for life events that happen, some expected, some unexpected.”

D.C.’s expansive family and medical leave policy advances

But options remain slim for city employees dealing with a serious illness or health condition requiring them to take time off from work. These workers are limited to their accrued sick time, annual vacation time or leave donated by their colleagues through a “leave bank,” Henderson said. If none of those options are available, workers can take up to 16 weeks of unpaid medical leave in any 24-month period — but there is no paid option.

Henderson, who worked as a legislative assistant for Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) before joining the council, noted that while federal employees also lack paid medical leave, they can receive up to 12 weeks of paid parental leave, compared with the eight weeks for D.C. government workers.

And after an expansion by the council last year, private-sector workers at businesses in D.C. can now receive up to eight weeks of paid leave to bond with a new child, two weeks of prenatal care, six weeks to care for an ailing family member and six weeks of personal medical leave, for up to eight weeks total per year.

These benefits are available even if a worker’s employer already provides paid leave, and language included in the fiscal 2022 budget passed by the council last year will probably result in more weeks added to all private-sector leave, Henderson said.

Both lawmakers said offering a generous leave package will help the D.C. government to recruit and retain talented workers in the city and region, which is imperative for the city’s agencies to run smoothly. Virginia provides eight weeks of parental leave for state workers, and Maryland provides 60 days for its workers, but the two states do not offer a prenatal or stand-alone medical option.

Under the proposal, two weeks of prenatal leave — to cover appointments, exams and treatments associated with pregnancy — would be available on top of the 12-week parental leave benefit.

“D.C. is already a leader in these issues, and we would be taking it a step further in terms of our competitiveness in the region, not just with the federal government but with our neighboring jurisdictions,” Henderson said, “and to at least try and offer the same type of benefits that we’re already providing the private sector.”

Jacqueline Pogue Lyons, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, said the council’s paid-leave legislation would offer benefits that would allow the city to compete with other school systems nearby, especially during a critical national staffing shortage.

She also recalled that labor unions in D.C. Public Schools have been pushing for coronavirus leave to be reinstated since cases started picking up after Thanksgiving, as the highly contagious omicron variant took hold. Hundreds of teachers and students tested positive, forcing campuses and schools to temporarily shift virtual. Many teachers used up their sick days as a result.

“I wish it was [retroactive],” Lyons said. “This policy should have gone back to when this omicron variant started.”

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The paid-leave legislation will need to go through the full legislative process, including a committee review and two votes by the council before heading to the desk of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D). The lawmakers say they are still figuring out a model to determine how much the new leave options would cost — but the hope is that it could be funded in the city’s upcoming budget.

The council members note that offering paid-leave benefits has an equity aspect, as well. Data from the Department of Employment Services shows that within the first six months after D.C. began its paid leave program for private-sector employees in 2020, nearly 6,000 workers used it. While the majority of claims were for parental leave, 1,154 workers in the city applied for medical leave, and Black workers made up more than half of those applications.

“It speaks to some of the disparities that we already see in the health sector in general,” Henderson said. “We know Black employees who work in District government are likely facing the same ailments, and yet are either having to take their own sick time or [vacation time]. That shouldn’t be the trade-off government employees have to make.”

Nicole Asbury contributed to this report.