Last week, District of Columbia Councilmembers David Grosso and Elissa Silverman, along with several colleagues, introduced the Universal Paid Leave Act of 2015, which would establish the most generous system for paid leave within the US. It would allow covered DC workers to take up to 16 weeks of paid leave in a year, at full pay for those who make up to $52,000 annually, to address their own serious medical conditions, bond with a new child, care for a seriously ill family member, or deal with deployment-related issues. Emily Crockett of RH Reality Check explains the funding mechanism:
The exact costs are still being calculated, but the program will be funded by a progressive payroll tax on employers equivalent to 1 percent or less of each employee’s salary. The District isn’t allowed to tax either the federal government or commuters from other states, so federal employees who live in Virginia and Maryland aren’t included. Federal employees who live in D.C. would pay into the fund themselves, and self-employed people can choose to pay into the program in order to receive the benefit.
… Other paid leave insurance proposals split the cost between employers and employees. But because D.C. isn’t allowed to levy a commuter tax on people who live in Virginia or Maryland but work in the District, the funds had to come from employers in order to cover those workers.
California and New Jersey were the first states to establish payroll-tax-funded paid leave insurance systems, which replace a portion of workers’ salaries when they are caring for a new child or family member with a health condition, or unable to work themselves. Last year, Rhode Island launched a similar program under which workers can receive up to $770 per week, for up to four weeks of caregiving leave or 30 days for workers’ own conditions. (More details on benefits and eligibility are in this handy chart from the National Partnership for Women and Families.) These states’ experiences have demonstrated that the programs are associated with better health for employees and positive outcomes for businesses.
With up to 16 weeks and full pay for many workers – those earning more than $52,000 per year get between $1,000 and $3,000 per week – DC’s proposed program would be by far the most generous in the nation. But, as Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak points out, it still wouldn’t be impressive compared to much of the rest of the world:
If the District passes this law and gives people 16 weeks of paid leave, it’s still not as generous as the policy in Serbia. Or Vietnam. Or the United Kingdom.
It will put the nation’s capital on par with Bangladesh.
The United States is the only country in the industrialized world — besides Papua New Guinea — that doesn’t require some kind of plan to keep its people afloat while they tend to major life events in their families.
If you live in Swaziland, Lesotho, Oman, Argentina and almost 200 other countries and you’re part of a family? You’re covered!
In our country, only the affluent can afford to take extended time off for birth, death or illness.
But the innovative bill introduced by seven council members — led by Elissa Silverman and David Grosso (both I-At Large) — may be the first step toward equality.
DC residents who are self-employed or work for the federal government (which DC can’t tax) have the option of paying into the system in order to be eligible for benefits. The system can help small businesses that don’t have the funds to offer paid family leave as a benefit. Flying Fish Coffee and Tea founder Michael Visser explained, “As a small business, the proposed program would allow me to support paid family leave that I otherwise could not afford.”
Councilmembers developed the proposal with the help of a $96,000 grant from the US Department of Labor; with that money, DC hired the Institute for Women’s Policy Research to model the plan. Last month, Secretary of Labor Tom Perez announced an additional $1.55 million in grants to eight jurisdictions to study paid family and medical leave implementation.
Paid sick, medical, and family leave is good for public health, as the American Public Health Association explains in its policy statement urging the US to expand access to paid leave. And, as Councilmember Grosso told the Washington Post’s Aaron C. Davis, a system that applies to all workers is especially important for those with lower incomes:
Grosso’s pitch to colleagues has primarily been focused on the bill as a partial solution to growing wage disparities. He has argued that family leave should not become the domain of the wealthy.
“The fact of the matter is, if you’re making less than $1,000 a week, you can’t make ends meet on a fraction of your pay. You can’t afford to take that leave,” said Grosso, chairman of the council’s education committee.
He pointed to research that men who care for their children as infants are more likely to be a bigger part of their kids’ lives later on.
“In this country, we really don’t reward strong families the way we should,” Grosso said.
I’m proud to be a resident of a city that passed the country’s second paid sick days law in 2008 (San Francisco had the first) and strengthened it in 2014. And I’m proud to see my councilmembers pushing for a system to help workers of all income levels care for their families. Maybe once enough jurisdictions create their own paid-leave systems, Congress will pass legislation like the FAMILY Act so that workers nationwide can bond with their new babies, care for their aging parents, and avoid sacrificing health for a paycheck.