Washington Is Leading The Way On Paid Family Leave

The Washington, D.C., City Council just voted on a paid leave bill that would be one of the most generous in the nation. Thanks to the city's demographics and its unique position as the nation's capital, this vote could be a major turning point for the country.

Called the Universal Paid Leave Act, the bill would allow full-time and part-time D.C. employees to take up to eight weeks of paid leave at 90 percent of their salary in order to take care of a new child and up to eight weeks to care for an ailing parent or grandparent.

The key word here is paid. Under the District's current law, people who work for businesses with 20 or more employees can take up to 16 weeks off. But, like the federal Family Medical Leave Act, the law does not require employers to pay their workers for the time off.

As a practical matter, many families cannot afford to take unpaid leave.

If passed, D.C.'s paid leave law would exceed the paid leave offered by the three other states with similar laws--California and New Jersey, which both offer six weeks, and Rhode Island, which offers four weeks. (These states actually provide more leave to new families than the D.C. law, however, because time off can be combined with state temporary disability leave insurance programs.)

The D.C. paid leave bill would also cover more workers than similar laws. It would only require that an employee work for the business for six months, as opposed to a year under California law. It also does not have a minimum employee threshold for businesses to be covered. Only New York, at 12 weeks, offers more paid leave, but at a lower capped rate of up to 67 percent of a worker's salary. D.C.'s paid leave would cover up to 90 percent of a worker's salary, subject to certain income thresholds.

Critics have been arguing that the matter needs more study and that currently the bill is too generous, costing D.C. businesses in order to benefit Maryland and Virginia residents who happen to live there.

This ignores two important points. First, paid leave is hardly a new initiative. Some version of it has been in effect in California for a decade. During that time, we have seen the sky-is-falling arguments by some in the business community simply don't hold water. Family leave does not have an anti-competitive effect. Second, this argument ignores the positive effect the bill will have by both helping the District retain a young well-educated workforce that places a premium on paid leave and address the needs of a low-income population that lacks the resources to stay in the job marketing when childcare falls through.

Moreover, waiting for a federal fix places too much confidence in the federal government. While Congress may eventually take action on this issue, given the nation's renewed interest in paid family leave, which was part of President-elect Donald Trump's campaign platform, there is no guarantee when and if that will happen anytime soon.

In addition to the specifics of the bill, this vote is the biggest opportunity for working families in a generation given that the debate is taking place right here in the District of Columbia--a city under congressional jurisdiction which is also on the crest of demographic changes that are shifting the balance nationwide in favor of paid leave.

The debate here is forming along battle lines similar to those in other states, with proponents making the moral and business case in support of family leave and with many in the business community raising the usual specter of costs and potential loss of jobs, arguing that the legislation will drive up the cost of labor. (Full disclosure: As an employer who would be covered by the bill, I support it.)  

An excellent example of the pro-family leave side of the debate was given in testimony in support of the bill by Vicki Shabo, vice President of the National Partnership for Women & Families. She notes, among many other things, that, despite the dire predictions from the business community in California upon passage of its paid leave program a decade ago, "California's employment growth outpaced the U.S. average by two percentage points." This testimony was in favor of the initial version of the bill which included 16 weeks of paid leave

On the other side, the Washington Board of Trade argued against a previous version of the bill, that included 16 weeks of paid leave claiming that it would result in a budget shortfall of over $300 million dollars. On the other side, the Washington Board of Trade argued against a previous version of the bill that included 16 weeks of paid leave claiming that it would result in a budget shortfall of over $300 million dollars.

There are several factors making the District a place unlike any other to have this battle.

First, according to 2013 Census data, the District has a higher proportion of women in the workplace than any other place in the nation. Women in Washington earn higher wages than the national average ($51,000 compared to $35,500) and an increasing proportion of these women are primary breadwinners for the family.

And according to a recent report by NPR, women remain one-third more likely than men to take time off of work to provide care for children or an elderly parent. But the same report notes that they also vote at a higher rate than men.

When mom is now, for instance, the bank vice president, as opposed to a teller, sending her home without pay to care for a new child is a serious hit to family finances. And she votes.

But the issue of paid family leave is not only important to white-collar workers. In fact, perhaps the greatest need for paid leave is among low-paid women, and two-thirds of the District's low wage workers are women.

The United States is the only industrialized nation in the world without paid family leave. According to a recent ABC News report, the U.S. is one of three nations without paid maternity leave, along with Papua New Guinea and Suriname. This intransigence is multi-factored, but is at least, in part, a holdover from the post-World War II phenomenon where women were encouraged to leave the workforce, which they had joined as part of the war effort, and return home so that men coming back from the war could find work.  

Second, attitudes among men, particularly millennial men, are changing: they are less likely to believe that it is the woman's job to stay home with the kids. And guess which area of the country has the highest percentage of millennials? Washington, D.C.

And any bill that the council passes, a Republican-controlled Congress may choose to block, likely preceded by a flurry of press releases from Republicans, many of whom oppose state-mandated paid leave. That would only drive more attention to the ideas behind the bill.

So, not only is the D.C. bill a ground-breaking piece of legislation, it is in the capital city, one with a lot of working women, many poor, and with a high portion of paid-leave loving millennials. And the broader forces driving this legislation will only get stronger.

Paid family leave is coming. Will Washington, D.C., be the turning point?

Tom Spiggle is author of the book "You're Pregnant? You're Fired: Protecting Mothers, Fathers, and Other Caregivers in the Workplace." He is founder of the Spiggle Law Firm, which has offices in Arlington, Va., Nashville, Tenn., and Washington, D.C., where he focuses on workplace law helping protect the rights of clients facing sexual harassment in the workplace and wrongful termination. To learn more, visit: www.spigglelaw.com