When D.C.’s paid leave proposal passed into law earlier this year, it was widely regarded as one of the most generous packages of its kind. But now, some of the same legislators who passed the bill—known as the Universal Paid Leave Act (UPLA)—are attempting to overhaul it, jeopardizing its ability to deliver long-awaited benefits to D.C. workers.
The bill passed by the D.C. Council goes into effect in 2020, granting eligible workers eight weeks of paid leave per year for a new child, six weeks toward care for an ill relative, and two weeks to attend to a temporary disability. It is the product of a two-year battle between advocates, who originally proposed 16 weeks of paid leave funded through a payroll tax, and a business lobby that fought for half as much leave with unclear funding mechanisms.
But since the UPLA became law in April—without the signature of Mayor Muriel Bowser, who cited concerns about the tax it imposes and the fact that it creates a new bureaucracy—four Council members have come forward with proposals to overhaul how the program is administered. Although the bills that have gained the most traction don’t reduce the length of paid leave or the wage replacement rate, they introduce new systems that threaten to compromise workers’ ability to actually access their benefits.
Under the current law, benefits will be funded by a 0.62 percent payroll tax paid by employers. The D.C. government will administer the program in its entirety, meaning that workers will submit paid leave requests to and receive benefits from a government agency instead of negotiating them with their employers. This model is a boon to workers, many of whom have seen requests for paid leave denied by managers.
But, at the behest of business and trade associations, multiple D.C. Council members have introduced alternatives to the UPLA that replace the centralized system in current law with one that gives control to individual employers––in many cases, the same employers who opposed the paid leave bill in the first place. Under the bulk of these proposals—there are five in total—employers pay significantly less in payroll taxes (in some cases a rate of just .1 percent), and instead either pay for paid leave benefits out of pocket or purchase private insurance.
This system—termed the employer mandate—replaces the predictable payroll tax with an unknown, and likely very volatile, cost to employers, who will have to pay for paid leave out of pocket, and can’t predict when employees will need to access their benefits. Because businesses’ profit margins are on the line, it creates a powerful incentive for employers to discriminate against the workers who are most likely to need to take time off from work. Currently, it isn’t uncommon for employers to pay these workers less, fire them, or just not hire them in the first place, rather than provide them paid leave. For low-wage earners, who are more often subject to intimidation by employers, the stakes are especially high.
In the United States, paid family leave is uniquely difficult to come by—unlike in literally every other industrialized country, where it’s guaranteed to workers. Only a handful of states (and now D.C.) have such laws on the books, and the majority of the nation’s employees are faced with untenable decisions between a paycheck and critical time off to care for themselves, a relative, or a newborn. On the flipside, when people have access to paid leave, their labor force participation rates improve, alongside their economic security and their health outcomes.
D.C. workers had been promised one of the nation’s strongest paid leave programs, and a full 82 percent of D.C. residents––who also, after all, live in one of the nation’s most progressive hubs––support it. But under these new proposals, some of the workers who need those benefits the most may never receive them.