October 29, 2013 Liz Borkowski, MPH 0Comment

I spent much of yesterday at a hearing held by the District of Columbia City Council’s Committee on Business, Consumer, and Regulatory Affairs – but I didn’t manage to stay for the entire 11 hours. Nearly 150 witnesses signed up to testify about the two main issues under consideration: raising the city’s minimum wage, and improving its paid-sick-leave law, which denies many workers access to paid sick days. The presence of so many witnesses, and the many hours they and Committee Chair Vincent Orange spent in the hearing room, demonstrate the importance of these issues that affect so many working families. (By one estimate, approximately 100 witnesses got to testify; many had to leave before the hearing wrapped up at 9pm.)

I was at the hearing primarily to testify in support of improvements to DC’s paid sick leave law. When the Council passed the law in 2008, it was only the second city in the nation to do so. (San Francisco was the first, in 2006, and it’s still the only one to require that all employers let employees earn paid sick time.) The law also includes “safe” leave, time that victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse can use to obtain medical, social, or legal services. DC’s law has some serious shortcomings, though. It excludes tipped restaurant workers (which is terrible for public health) and workers in their first year of employment, and it doesn’t include penalties to effectively discourage employers from denying workers the paid sick time they’ve earned.

The Earned Sick and Safe Leave Amendment Act of 2013 (PDF), introduced to the City Council earlier this month, would expand the law to include tipped restaurant workers, allow employees to access paid leave after 90 days working for their employer, and includes financial penalties for employers who violate the paid-leave law. Many of the Council members who spoke at the hearing voiced support for improving DC’s paid sick leave law – and, thanks in large part to the work of the Paid Sick Days for All coalition, 11 of the Council’s 13 members either co-introduced or co-sponsored the bill.

Combining the issues of paid sick leave and the minimum wage into a single hearing – and, potentially, into a single bill that can be voted on in December – makes sense because the current laws on both issues disadvantage low-income families. With turnover especially high in low-wage jobs, many workers aren’t with the same employer long enough to pass the one-year waiting period to access paid sick days. Low-income workers are the least likely to be able to miss a day’s pay in order to stay home to recover from illness or care for a sick family member. Minimum-wage workers have been without a raise for years, even as the cost of living has risen quickly.

DC’s minimum wage is $8.25 per hour; by law, it’s one dollar higher than the federal minimum. The multiple bill that have been introduced propose increases to amounts ranging from $10.50 to $12.50 per hour, with increases to be phased in over multiple years. Several councilmembers said they’d prefer that the federal government raise the minimum wage, but think DC should act on its own because Congress seems unlikely to make progress on this issue. Councilmembers and witnesses alike alluded to DC’s recent economic boom, and said that this prosperity should be shared across the city’s population. Council Chair Orange also noted that DC is in discussions with two neighboring counties – Maryland’s Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties – about acting to raise their minimum wages at the same time.

The prospects for DC legislation that both increases the minimum wage and improve the paid-sick-leave law looks good. “This train has left the station, it’s not going to stop,” Orange said about raising the minimum wage, suggesting that it wasn’t a question of whether the city’s minimum wage would increase, but by how much and how quickly. Because higher incomes are associated with better health outcomes, combining a minimum-wage increase with expanded access to paid sick days would be an excellent way to improve public health in Washington, DC.

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