An overwhelming majority of District residents support a proposal before the D.C. Council to give each worker in the city 16 weeks of paid time off to care for a newborn or for a dying family member, according to a Washington Post poll.
There’s just one hitch: More than half of those polled also say they don’t want workers to have to pay for it themselves.
The wide contrast in support underscores a deep political divide nationally on the issue. It also sets up a major hurdle for proponents in the District to build a consensus around a plan to give employees the most-generous family-leave benefit in the nation.
Under a bill that District lawmakers will begin debating Wednesday, private employers in the city would be required to pay the equivalent of as much as 1 percent of all employees’ salary costs into a citywide fund to cover the universal benefit.
The Post poll, conducted in mid-November, found that among District residents, 82 percent support the plan if employers are footing the bill, including large majorities across all parts of the city, all income levels and all racial groups.
But support falls to 45 percent citywide in a follow-up question asking about funding the program through a new tax on workers instead of businesses, as would be the case for federal workers. Fifty-one percent oppose an employee-funded measure.
Because the District cannot require the federal government to pay such a tax, the bill would set up two classes of workers in the city: employees of private companies, who would have their leave funded by a new tax on employers, vs. federal employees and others, who would be required to pay the tax themselves.
“That probably needs to be revisited” for fairness, said Capitol Hill resident Heidi VanGenderen, a soon-to-be grandmother who said she would like her daughter to live in a place where 16 weeks of family leave would be the norm. “But I think the concern is that the tax on employers is just too much; it probably has to be shared, somehow apportioned to everyone who could avail themselves of it,” she said.
Family leave is an issue that has already factored prominently in the 2016 presidential race, with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) saying the government should provide more tax incentives for employers to offer leave and all three Democratic presidential candidates supporting more broad-based mandates for family leave.
According to the poll, if workers are on the hook, support fades most precipitously among lower-income groups that authors of the measure say they hope would benefit most from the policy.
Although few low-wage and hourly workers have paid family-leave benefits, more than 4 in 10 of those making less than $50,000 a year dialed back their support when asked whether they would back the measure if it meant paying 1 percent of their salary.
The drop-off in support is also larger among those who say they are “falling behind financially” — 48 percent are opposed if employees pay — compared with 33 percent among those who are “getting ahead” financially.
Support remained the most steady among those making more than $100,000 a year and those who are white. Just over a quarter of those two groups oppose the measure if they must pay for it themselves.
Council members David Grosso and Elissa Silverman, at-large independents who co-authored the D.C. measure with backing from the Obama administration, have said that a broad base of employers and employees contributing to the new family-leave system in the city would be important in keeping costs down to 1 percent of salary or less for everyone.
They also argue that a generous leave benefit would make District jobs more attractive in the region and would make employees more loyal to their jobs than in neighboring Maryland and Virginia.
But business leaders have been plotting to disrupt the proposal, in part by painting it as a major imbalance to regional competitiveness and as creating unequal treatment for workers across the region.
The Greater Washington Board of Trade has paid for research it plans to present at a council hearing Wednesday showing that more than 100,000 employees would have to pay for the benefit themselves, including about 42,000 D.C. residents who work for the federal government. Tens of thousands of city residents who commute to federal jobs in Maryland and Virginia would also have to pay for the benefit.
In those offices in Maryland and Virginia, D.C. residents would also have far more generous benefits waiting for them in hard times than co-workers who reside elsewhere.
Jim Dinegar, president of the board, said that would create untenable situations in which employers in Maryland and Virginia might seek to avoid hiring D.C. residents to prevent workplace conflicts.
The same conflict could emerge in federal offices in the District, he said, with residents commuting to the city from elsewhere not having the same leave benefits as their counterparts who reside in the District.
A majority of D.C. Council members have expressed support for the measure, and in an interview, Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said he thinks the council will approve an expansion of family-leave benefits in the city.
How far the city will go remains unclear, though.
The D.C. legislation would more than double the length of any paid-leave program in the country. Only three states have enacted such laws over the past 10 years. Currently, the maximum benefit is six weeks of partial paid leave in New Jersey and California; Rhode Island provides up to four weeks of leave.
Experts also think the majority of leave taken in the District under the proposed measure, as drafted, would go for tending to personal medical issues, including management of chronic diseases and other conditions.
Under one initial estimate, developed through a federal grant, only 12 percent of the leave taken in the District might be claimed by employees taking time off to care for a newborn.
The Washington Post poll was conducted Nov. 12 to 15 among a random sample of 1,005 adult District residents reached on conventional and cellular phones. The margin of sampling error for overall results is plus or minus four percentage points.
Correction: Jim Dinegar’s name was misspelled in a previous version of this article.