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Advocates: Replacing Landmark Family Leave Act Would Shortchange D.C.’s Most Vulnerable Residents

Auditi Guha

"No one should be forced to make impossible choices between caring for the people they love and keeping the jobs and income they need to make ends meet."

A pregnant woman who couldn’t get six weeks off work after delivery despite her doctor’s orders; a woman who quit her D.C.-based job when her twins were in the NICU because she was only granted two weeks of leave; a major retail store associate who depends on the government for her only paid leave benefit.

These were some of the stories shared at a D.C. Council hearing Thursday on five bills to modify the landmark Universal Paid Leave Amendment Act (UPLAA) that passed in December. The bills outline different mechanisms to pay for the program and create new conditions depending on the size of a business. Bill 22-302, for instance, replaces the social insurance structure with an employer mandate for businesses with 25 or more employees. 

The paid family and medical leave provision became law in April with benefits expected to take effect in 2020, but business lobbyists have strongly opposed the measure, because they argue it burdens businesses by incurring additional expenses. Some Council members admitted to the pressure they are facing from business groups opposed to generous family leave as they debated the UPLAA, which will provide D.C. private-sector workers with eight weeks of parental leave, six weeks to care for an ailing family member, and two weeks for personal sick time. It does not apply to federal or district workers, and large employers that already provide paid leave would be required to match the number of days off the law gives.

Under the law, family leave would be funded by an employer-only 0.62 percent payroll tax, which would raise an estimated $246 million each year. Employees taking leave would be paid from the citywide pool administered by a new arm of government, a system that has worked very well in Rhode Island, said Rhode Island state Sen. Gayle Goldin (D) during her testimony.

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“As an elected official, I am proud of my state. As a policy analyst, I know that a publicly run social insurance pool is the most efficient system you could create,” she said. “The bills you have before you today would create administrative burdens, increase costs, or otherwise dissuade workers and employers from participating.”

Advocates delivered hours of testimony in support of the act as it is. They begged the Council not to “repeal and replace” it, and demanded support for the city’s most vulnerable workers—women, people with low incomes, and people of color—who are often forced to choose between their health and their jobs because of a lack of paid leave.

“Studies have shown that women with access to paid leave are more likely to return to the labor force, resulting in lower level of overall unemployment. Paid leave is not a fringe ‘nice-to-have’ policy for poorer communities. It is a fundamental policy that reduces inequalities, reduces unemployment, and increases women’s labor force participation,” Seema Nanda, executive vice president and COO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said during her testimony.

Nanda recommended keeping the more effective social insurance program, which she likened to Social Security and unemployment, rather than adopting an employer mandate option that would force employers to pay for workers’ benefits out of pocket and leave workers with low incomes open to retaliation and discrimination.

Half of all white workers have access to some paid parental leave, as opposed to 43 percent of African-American workers and 25 percent of Latino workers, Nanda said, citing a study.

Laura Brown, executive director of the First Shift Justice Project, outlined stories of clients who lost their jobs due to pregnancy, despite legal protections such as the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. “If we abandon [UPLAA] for an employer mandate, 16,000 families who depend on breadwinner mothers will lose again,” she said.

Working Families Party senior adviser and former Montgomery County Council member Valerie Ervin told Rewire she has seen firsthand how vulnerable residents are penalized in D.C. for falling sick, having children, or having to look after aging parents. Residents of Wards 7 and 8, who face a troublingly high unemployment rate and draw dismal wages that are among the lowest in the city, need the promise this legislation provides, Ervin said.

“They are among the residents of D.C. who see corporate interests and gentrification pushing working families out of the district.” Rolling back the vote now will not help, she added.

Small business owner and president of the D.C. National Organization for Women chapter, Monica Weeks told Rewire it is “disappointing” to still be talking of something as basic as being able to care for yourself and your family without being penalized in this day and age.

At a time when women’s access to health care is under threat, “it is important for women to stay healthy and have healthy children, especially if half the population is women.” The UPLAA would ensure that, she said.

The DC Paid Family Leave Campaign submitted a letter in support of the UPLAA, undersigned by local businesses like Busboys and Poets, A Few Good Hardware Stores, and Patagonia. Advocates warned that the bills and the alternatives proposed would undermine the strength of the UPLAA and pointed out that other states that offer paid family leave—New York, New Jersey, and California—use a similar social insurance infrastructure.

“No one should be forced to make impossible choices between caring for the people they love and keeping the jobs and income they need to make ends meet. Paid leave policies strengthen businesses and the workforce, improve community health, and are urgently needed by DC’s working families,” the letter states.

The D.C. Council is accepting written statements on the proposed changes until October 24.

CORRECTION: Valerie Ervin is the Working Families Party’s senior adviser, not the executive director of the Center for Working Families.

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