The story of the District’s paid family- and medical-leave law is a tale of two cities.
On one side of the divide is a city that will soon bask in a policy, which, according to the law, will provide workers with up to eight weeks of parental leave to bond with a new child, six weeks of family leave to care for an ill family member with a serious health condition and two weeks of medical leave to care for one’s own serious health condition.
It is a city with good social policy.
The progressive National Partnership for Women and Families, a nonprofit advocacy group that pushes hard for such programs across the country, praised D.C. Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) and others for their highly effective work in 2016 to pass one of the nation’s most generous policies guaranteeing workers paid family and medical leave. At the time, the National Partnership spelled out the benefits of the city’s law explicitly in a news release: It makes paid leave accessible to virtually every private sector worker in the District. Employees who must care for a new child or a seriously ill family member or who are seriously sick themselves will be able to take “time away from work without jeopardizing their ability to cover their basic expenses.”
That D.C. city, because of the law, is a more family-friendly place. A good thing.
On the other side of the D.C. dividing line is a city faced with a markedly different challenge. In that city, the overarching goal: to just find and keep a job, to get work that puts food on the table and a roof overhead.
That is the city in which I grew up, and where thousands still live.
It is a city where the word “leave” means “get out” or “go away.”
A world where getting time off from work or an excused absence with pay for family care or to bury a parent is either unheard of or a distant dream. Domestic day workers have no such expectations. I know my mother didn’t.
Neither did my father when he found work as a laborer.
There are people today in that D.C. city who don’t know what it’s like to go out the door to a job that pays, who don’t face the choice between caring for a loved one or keeping a job, because there’s no job to keep. And there are many others aged out of the job market.
The paid family medical leave debate unfolded against the backdrop of two cities stubbornly divided between those employed full time, and those either underemployed or jobless, and who are also separated by income, race and where people live.
Most residents of both cities, I believe, would not begrudge beneficiaries of the family leave act. It is their good fortune to have jobs with benefits. If anything, they are to be envied, not resented.
Yet for many D.C. residents stuck on the sidelines, the family medical leave debate was not about them.
In any case, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) refused to sign the legislation, criticizing it as a tax on D.C. businesses that would largely benefit Virginia and Maryland residents who work there. (She didn’t veto it either, so it became law that will take effect in July 2020.) And Bowser singled out Silverman as the chief culprit who helped write and pushed for the proposal, saying it was promoted by outsiders who wanted to use the city as a “petri dish” for their progressive causes.
“We have to be careful when national groups come into D.C. to move national legislation to demonstrate to the rest of the world that it can be passed,” said Bowser.
Thus, this year’s race for an at-large Council seat between Silverman and political neophyte Dionne Reeder became, albeit unintentionally, symptomatic of the issues underlying the family-leave debate. Silverman and Reeder, whether they liked it or not, were cast as surrogates.
The Silverman and Reeder candidacies represented a tale of two cities separated by widening gaps in education, wealth and opportunity, as well as separated by racially changing and defined neighborhoods.
Silverman became the standard-bearer for the city’s well-educated, well-housed and well-employed, who see the District through a lens offering the perspective of a bright future.
And Reeder: a stand-in for the poor, disaffected and left-out people of color who see their city slipping away.
Silverman’s city — and priority — won.
The collapse of political civility and the fostering of separateness also scored victories.
If we have learned anything from this dust-up, it’s that pettiness makes for putrid politics and poor public relationships.
Ambitious lust for power — clumsily pursued — has given us two cities.
Getting the District back to one city will require a quality of mature, levelheaded leadership that, sadly, is not in evidence these days.
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