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Business proposals to overhaul D.C. paid family leave law are dead — for now

People celebrate in the hall after 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 on Oct. 6, 2015.
People celebrate in the hall after 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 on Oct. 6, 2015. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) this week announced he was dropping efforts to overhaul the city’s paid family leave law in a more business-friendly fashion, ending some of the uncertainty over a new government program that is among the most generous in the country.

During his first debate with progressive challenger Ed Lazere on Tuesday, Mendelson surprised other lawmakers and advocates on both sides of the issue when he said he would not move forward with bills designed to amend the program.

Paid leave advocates said his comments cleared the way for implementation of the law, although they want a firmer commitment that the law won’t be amended. Representatives of business groups vowed to continue pressing their case, suggesting Mendelson made his comments to assuage progressive activists during an election year.

In an interview, Mendelson said failed negotiations, not campaign politics, drove his decision.

“I thought I’d work something out roughly a month ago, and it collapsed,” Mendelson said. “I’m tired of talking about it, and I’m moving on.”

Still, he would not rule out tweaks to the law at some point in the future.

Mendelson shepherded the paid leave program into law in 2016 over the opposition of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D). It levies a 0.62 percent employer-paid payroll tax to fund a city program that offers private sector workers eight weeks of paid time off for new parents, six weeks to care for an ill relative and two weeks of personal sick time.

D.C. Council at odds over how to change paid leave law

Facing opposition from business groups, Mendelson agreed last year to revisit how to pay for the program. Among the proposals: Allow businesses who offer equivalent benefits to pay lower taxes, require employees to pay for their own benefits, and have a private contractor administer benefits instead of a D.C. agency.

Advocates for the paid sick leave law argue those alternatives threatened the availability of the benefits. They welcomed Mendelson’s decision not to pursue changes at this time, but said they remain on alert.

“This past year taught us we can’t take anything for granted, the attacks are going to continue to come,” said Joanna Blotner, an activist and one of the leaders of a paid-leave coalition.

Employers haven’t given up.

“We remain hopeful the council will find a way to reform the law to allow employees who already enjoy generous paid leave benefits from their employers to continue doing so,” said Matt Hill, a spokesman for Georgetown University, one of the largest employers in the city involved in negotiations with Mendelson.

Vincent Orange, president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, said he was blindsided by Mendelson’s remarks just weeks after the chairman told him that an overhaul was around the corner.

“The District of Columbia cannot be the national laboratory for these types of initiatives,” said Orange, a former council member. “There’s no solution, but a heavy price that we have to pay, the business community has to pay, because he now has an opponent.”

Challenged from left, Mendelson defends progressive record

Mendelson won applause when he told progressive activists who packed the candidate forum Tuesday that he wouldn’t move forward with amendments to the paid leave bill.

But Lazere, executive director of the left-leaning D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, is blasting Mendelson, taking credit for the shift and accusing him of showing “poor leadership.”

“He spent a year holding up paid family leave in response to big-business pressure when clearly the law that passed was the best,” said Lazere in an interview. “He lost a year when we could have been making progress on other issues.”

Mendelson retorted that there’s “never any harm in looking at an already passed law to see if we can make it better.”

The Department of Employment Services, the agency overseeing the paid leave program, issued a report this month laying out a timeline for paying out benefits by 2020, warning that legislative overhauls could lead to delays.

Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), a key supporter of the paid leave program, said the agency’s director, Odie Donald, told her that Mendelson’s announcement was great news.

“It should be full steam ahead,” Silverman said. “But I would love to hear the chairman say that the law is the law.”

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who pushed for employees to chip in for leave benefits as a way of addressing criticism that the program largely benefits non-D.C. residents who work in the city, said she was disappointed that the lawmakers are back where they started after spending a year revisiting the program.

“Maybe it was embroiled in too much controversy,” Cheh said. “I really think we had a better way of doing it.”