For several years, the nation’s capital has joined other left-leaning cities and states in pushing legislation to improve the plight of the working poor.
Now, facing growing unrest from business owners and internal division over their priorities, D.C. lawmakers are preparing to take a break from further beefing up labor standards.
The retreat, coming after a year in which the District adopted a plan to increase its minimum hourly wage to $15 and enacted a law guaranteeing private-sector workers some of the nation's most generous family- and medical-leave benefits, is an abrupt shift for a city whose leaders have been in the vanguard of the national campaign for workers' rights.
It comes as Democratic cities elsewhere continue to push for enhanced workforce protections, such as laws regulating how businesses schedule employees’ shifts.
As the D.C. Council prepares to resume its legislative session this week after a two-month summer recess, some are lauding the course correction, while others lament that the District is forfeiting its prominent place fighting for stronger workplace standards.
"Businesses like certainty, and if we're constantly changing the tax burden or the tax environments, or constantly changing the regulatory burden, then it becomes more difficult to do business in the District," said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who has proposed a moratorium through the end of 2018 on bills that would negatively affect businesses.
Mendelson, who shepherded the paid-leave bill through the council in December despite opposition from business groups and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), said businesses need a "breather" and policymakers need to see if the labor laws they have enacted are working.
“This doesn’t mean absolutely nothing will go through,” he said.
Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), chairwoman of the council’s labor and workforce development committee, said the District should continue to enact laws that ensure lower-income workers “have fair rules to play by” in an economic boom that has disproportionately benefited the city’s affluent.
Silverman questioned the assumption that marquee workforce protections like the paid-leave bill — which she co-authored — or the $15 minimum wage unfairly burden employers. She said business owners have told her that they are more frustrated with the city's small-bore regulatory requirements, such as permitting.
She said she supports the idea of a “fair scheduling” bill, which mandates predictable schedules for on-call workers in places such as restaurants, hotels and other businesses. Labor activists have made clear such legislation is their next goal in the District.
But she acknowledged that political reality may dictate that the council takes up other priorities for the foreseeable future.
Not least among them the paid-leave law, which some council members have proposed revising to lower its tax burden on businesses. Debate over whether and how to reshape the law — which increases business taxes to provide eight weeks of paid parental leave, six weeks to care for a sick relative and two weeks of personal sick time — will probably preoccupy the council for at least the rest of the year.
“I have told the advocates supporting fair scheduling that we will deal with paid family leave first,” she said.
At least one bill affecting business practices is already making its way toward a vote in the council: A measure proposed by council member David Grosso (I-At Large) that would bar employers from asking about salary history before making a job offer. The bill is aimed at eliminating differences in pay between men and women.
Ari Schwartz, lead organizer for the pro-labor coalition D.C. Jobs with Justice, said activists will continue to push elected officials to adopt stronger workplace laws.
“Why should legislation that is going to help people in the city get better jobs, get living-wage jobs, be on a moratorium?” Schwartz said. “I don’t understand how anyone can rule out considering things that people need and policies that are going to help people, on some arbitrary timeline just because the business community is up in arms as they always are.”
District restaurateur Saied Azali said he welcomed a hiatus from further workplace standards imposed by the city.
“It’s a wonderful, wonderful idea,” said Azali, co-owner of Perry’s, Mintwood Place and Convivial. In the restaurant industry, he said, an influx of competitors catering to the District’s increasingly affluent patrons has made it a particularly bad time to impose new regulations on established businesses. “It’s very tough for all of us to survive,” he said.
Such concerns echo those expressed by trade groups during the debate over paid leave in December. The Greater Washington Board of Trade, D.C. Chamber of Commerce, Federal City Council and associations representing restaurants, universities and hospitals opposed the bill ultimately passed by the council, particularly its funding mechanism, a new .62 percent payroll tax levied on employers.
Yesim Sayin Taylor, executive director of the D.C. Policy Center, a fiscally moderate think tank associated with the Federal City Council, said it was a good time for D.C. officials to wait to witness the effects of recent laws such as the minimum-wage increase, whose effects on job creation economists dispute.
“The relationship between businesses and their employees is very complex. It’s not one-dimensional,” Taylor said. “It’s an important time to sort of stop for the moment and really understand what kind of burden businesses carry in the District.”
Yet such a pause would run counter to the prevailing trend in progressive statehouses and city halls elsewhere in the country. With little movement in Congress to improve pay and benefits for the working poor, pro-labor measures have become a priority and litmus test for Democrats at the local level.
California and New York have adopted minimum-wage increases. Last month, Oregon's governor signed a scheduling bill similar to that sought by D.C. labor advocates. In May, New York City approved a law regulating the schedules of fast-food workers.
“I think it’s purely an expression of frustration that lawmakers at higher levels of government haven’t taken up these issues,” said David Cooper, a senior economic analyst at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.
Cooper said some liberal cities in Republican-controlled states have run into trouble: When St. Louis boosted its minimum wage this year, Missouri state officials passed a bill to reverse the increase.
It is less common, he said, for pro-labor legislators such as those in the District to unilaterally alter their agenda.
“It would be unusual,” he said, “for D.C., among its peer group of fairly progressive cities, to come out and say they are going to ignore worker standards for the foreseeable future.”