The District may soon require employers to provide 11 weeks of paid family leave for parents to bond with newborn or adopted children and eight weeks to care for an ailing parent or grandparent — among the most generous paid-leave laws in the nation.
The proposal, released Monday by D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), is expected to draw support from a majority of the council, which has been discussing paid leave for more than a year.
Under the plan, full-time and part-time employees would be able to draw from a government account to receive up to 90 percent of their pay. The benefit would be limited to $1,000 a week.
It would be funded by an increase in payroll taxes on businesses of every size, an idea opposed by the city’s largest private employers.
The legislation would not allow employees to take paid leave to deal with their health problems, except in cases related to childbirth.
Advocates say paid family leave fills a crucial need in a country where 59 percent of mothers with infants are in the workforce and just 12 percent of workers in the private sector get paid leave through their employers. Studies show that when a parent can care for a child after birth or adoption, it results in improved health for both.
The United States is the only industrialized nation without a national paid leave law of any kind; only a handful of states have paid leave laws.
“This is a win for society,” said council member David Grosso (I-At Large), a supporter of the plan. “People will be able to do what matters most to them in life and that is be close to the people they care about during great moments of transition in their lives.”
But Jim Dinegar, president and chief executive of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, was noncommittal. He said the business community would need time to review the proposal, and the council should not rush to pass a law by year’s end.
Coming at the outset of a new Republican-controlled term in Congress and the arrival in Washington of President-elect Donald Trump, the measure could open a new front between Democrats who control the District’s local government and the city’s federal overseers.
Trump was the first Republican presidential nominee to offer a plan for paid family leave. But he advocated for a shorter period, six weeks, and said the benefit should be “self-financing” by cutting waste elsewhere. He also said it should not create a burden on employers.
The D.C. plan, by contrast, would put the cost directly onto employers and would be the first in the country to require businesses to fully fund employees’ family leave benefit, much the way European governments use broad-based taxes to fund parental leave for up to a year.
In two-parent households, each spouse would be able to take off 11 weeks within a year of a child’s birth or adoption or the placement of a foster child. Each employee would be limited to one leave claim per year.
Up to eight weeks of family leave could be used to care for an ailing spouse, child or legal dependent, including a stepson or stepdaughter, the child of a domestic partner, or a legal ward.
Lauren Kunis, who works at a D.C. nonprofit and has an 18-month-old daughter, said she was thrilled by the proposed legislation. But “of course it would have been a little better 18 months ago,” she said. Kunis recalled how her husband had to return to work within five days of the birth of Emmeline.
“Looking back, we didn’t understand at the time what an intense and scary and vulnerable time that was,” said Kunis, 34, who saved up five years’ worth of sick leave and vacation days in order to stay home during the first few months. “It forced us into gender roles we never believed in — he went to work and I stayed home.”
If there’s a next child, she hopes they both can stay home longer under the legislation. “Those first couple months are so important to have both parents be there to respond to the child,” she said.
Grosso and council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) had introduced a version of the bill more than a year ago that called for 16 weeks of paid family leave. Grosso, who pledged to business leaders last year to keep costs of a leave program manageable, said the proposal released Monday showed the city was “getting close.”
“If a business has a million dollars in payroll taxes, we’re talking about $6,200 to make sure their employees have this incredible benefit,” Grosso said. “That’s a pretty good deal.”
To cover the cost, the District would have to increase employer-paid payroll taxes by 0.62 percent, or about $250 million annually. That’s in addition to the city’s corporate franchise tax rate of 9.4 percent, among the highest in the region.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has questioned whether a family leave benefit would be the best use of a new business tax. In a statement on Monday, she remained cool to the idea: “This is about fairness, and if we are going to raise a quarter of a billion dollars in new taxes each year, then D.C. families should be the primary beneficiaries.”
The legislation is structured to be “very progressive,” with low-wage workers reaping the greatest benefit, Mendelson said. An employee’s first $46,000 in wages would be replaced at a rate of 90 percent. After that, wages would be replaced at 50 percent. Workers making about $76,000 would receive the maximum payout of $1,000 per week, but the benefits would be taxed.
In an interview, the council chairman cast the proposal as a compromise between a larger tax increase — of about 1 percent of payroll — sought by advocates and feared by businesses.
“The business community is very opposed to a 1 percent tax, and we wanted to come in, I wanted to come in, substantially lower. And that’s the reason why this has been so confidential, because I want them to be surprised,” Mendelson said.
To set the tax at less than 1 percent, Mendelson jettisoned a costly part of the legislation that would have allowed paid personal leave for workers’ medical issues.
Dinegar said Mendelson’s decision to disallow leave for personal medical care was a “big changer,” reducing the burden to employers.
Federal law requires private employers with at least 50 workers to provide 12 weeks of unpaid medical or family leave.
Joanna Blotner, who led a campaign of social justice groups, unions and some business owners advocating for family leave, said the group was celebrating the proposal for parents but “heartbroken” over the loss of personal medical leave.
“We have people who go get chemotherapy on their lunch break. because they don’t have leave. I find that pretty morally reprehensible,” Blotner said.
She added that her group would push for an amendment to reinstate some medical leave but acknowledged the odds were low.
Mendelson said he has received an initial review of the plan from Jeffrey DeWitt, the city’s chief financial officer. DeWitt has been publicly skeptical about whether the District could afford to offer the benefits — or whether a model could be built to accurately predict how many employees would avail themselves of the benefits.
That’s because the District’s family leave would dwarf the most generous paid benefits provided in California and New Jersey. Those states require up to six weeks, reimbursed at 60 percent of an employee’s wage.
New York is scheduled to begin phasing in a family leave law in 2018, reaching a maximum of 12 weeks of paid leave by 2021, but also at lower reimbursement rates.
The D.C. Council is expected to take an initial vote on Tuesday and a final vote on Dec. 20. But even if it quickly adopts the law, it will take more than three years before District workers could benefit.
Mendelson said the D.C. government needs 18 months to develop the software to collect the payroll tax and administer the benefits. After that, employers will have to pay into the fund for 12 months to build a balance to draw from.
The chairman said workers probably could begin taking paid leave for births in January 2020.