Supporters of paid family leave at the DC Council on the day of the vote. Image by the author.

Last December, the DC Council passed a bill that gives new parents up to eight weeks of paid time off. Now, some members of the council are working to repeal and replace the bill before it goes into effect by giving employers control of when employees get leave. The original bill should be enacted as it was passed, because it's the best option for families in DC to get paid family leave.

What is universal paid leave?

Under the new law, called the Universal Paid Leave Act (UPLA), paid leave in DC would be a “social insurance” program, like unemployment insurance or Social Security, guaranteed to all people who work for private sector employers in the District. People’s leave requests would no longer be subject to the whims of their employers.

DC’s program would cover most people who work in DC—about 540,000 would be covered, but not those who work for the federal or District governments, which have different ways of making some of these benefits available. The program would guarantee up to eight annual weeks of paid leave to care for a new child, six weeks to care for an ailing family member, and two weeks for personal injury or illness.

The law is set to go into effect on October 1, 2017, when the new fiscal year starts. A new city agency would administer the benefits, and a payroll tax of 0.62% would pay for it.

The city has to build the technical and personnel infrastructures that will be required to run the program, which will raise and spend an estimated $246 million annually starting in 2020. To get things rolling so the program can launch on time, the Council allocated $40 million in UPLA start-up funds in the city’s FY2018 budget, finalized in May. This one-time investment will pay for IT procurement and initial staffing, as the program would pay for its own administrative costs once launched.

How UPLA came to be, and who it would help

The UPLA bill was the product of years of research and debate, crafted by policy wonks who gleaned best practices from state programs in California, Rhode Island, and New Jersey. (New York and Washington state have also recently created new programs.)

UPLA was passed by the DC Council in a 9-4 vote, and was backed by a coalition of hundreds of DC community organizations, companies, and nonprofits, plus thousands of residents, pulled together by the Campaign for DC Paid Family Leave. The coalition includes more than 80 local businesses, ranging from Pleasant Pops to several locally-owned Ace Hardwares. (See the full list of coalition businesses here.)

The final bill is a compromise between advocates, who originally proposed a medically-recommended 16 weeks of leave and a 1% payroll tax, and DC business associations, who fought to cut the payroll tax and decrease the amount of leave available to their employees.

UPLA would be life-changing for hundreds of thousands of people—especially DC’s 233,000 small business employees and people who work hourly jobs for low pay. Today, both groups are unlikely to have access to these benefits through employers.

The Paid Family Leave Campaign has a collection of heart-breaking stories from DC residents who were forced to choose between caring for their loved ones and holding onto the paycheck their families depend on.

There’s Rachel, who could only take off a limited amount of time to be with her ailing mother between her Alzheimer’s diagnosis and her death; there’s Greg, who was only able to take a few weeks off from work when his son was born, even though his wife suffered from preeclampsia during labor and was still recovering when he had to return to work.

This year, I saw my own family members grapple with a lack of paid leave when my cousin gave birth in January: she and her husband, who works in DC, had to cobble together sick days and vacation leave in order to spend time with their newborn son.

Councilmembers' proposals could make UPLA less effective

But some councilmembers are now considering making changes in the wake of steep opposition from Mayor Muriel Bowser and some business groups, who argue that many employers already offer paid leave and would receive no credit for it under UPLA. Even Chairman Phil Mendelson, who voted to support the bill, told journalists in February, “we’re open to more discussion” about changes to UPLA.

So far there have been at least five new proposals from Councilmembers Evans, Cheh, and Gray, and Chairman Mendelson, all of which replace the universal social insurance program envisioned in UPLA with some form of an employer mandate. (The Paid Family Leave campaign helpfully offers a thorough side-by-side comparison of the original bill with the new proposals.)

These proposals would essentially hollow out UPLA not long after it takes effect. They have a patchwork of complicated rules that mostly put control of leave benefits back in the hands of employers. Such programs would require strong enforcement efforts to ensure employees actually get paid leave when they need it.

Under an employer mandate, employers must pay directly for leave (or buy equivalent insurance, which currently doesn’t exist). Employers and private insurance companies would have a direct financial incentive to deny employees their leave benefits, pressure them into not asking for leave, fire those who do, and/or discriminate in hiring and promotion against people they think are likely to need paid leave. Hourly workers, those in high-turnover industries, or those who simply have abusive bosses already too often face punishment when they ask to use benefits they already supposedly have, like paid sick days.

Already, many employees avoid even asking for these benefits, fearing that their employers will retaliate against them by reducing their hours or giving them worse schedules—a fear they would also face under employer mandate proposals.

An employer mandate incentivizes employers to fire vulnerable workers or refuse to hire them in the first place. Research has shown that letting corporations control benefits leads to discrimination against vulnerable workers, including women of child-bearing age and older adults; when faced with the choice between firing, or refusing to hire, vulnerable workers or paying for their parental or medical leave, too many employers opt for the first, usually finding it less costly.

Indeed, discrimination against pregnant employees under employer mandate programs is a serious problem worldwide; in my day job, I work for an international labor rights organization, and we routinely document discriminatory (and illegal) firings of people who are pregnant at factories around the globe.

Most employers would actually financially benefit from a universal program. Businesses would pay a small, predictable tax to fund the program, rather than needing to pay unpredictable—and possibly high—costs directly whenever their employees need leave. Small businesses in particular would benefit: UPLA would be significantly less costly for companies with 20 or fewer workers than an employer mandate.

We need universal paid leave now

Councilmember Mary Cheh has said, “I support paid leave, but I think there’s a better way to do it than what we passed.” But countries around the world—and several states in the US—have been experimenting with the best way to provide paid leave for years, and the most successful programs are those that provide universal social insurance.

No model does a better job protecting vulnerable working people, covering the self-employed, or saving money and spreading out costs for small businesses. The purported “fixes” in the repeal-and-replace proposals are solutions in search of problems.

The five new proposals are currently slated to receive hearings in September or October. Councilmembers should stand firm: UPLA as it was already passed is the best option we have, and it must become a reality.

DC has been a leader on many crucial issues: we were among the first US municipalities to legalize marriage equality, mandate paid sick leave, and pass a $15 minimum wage. We need to lead again now. Especially at a time when sick people, pregnant people, and people who work hard for low pay are already afraid of losing access to healthcare, DC must move swiftly to enact universal paid leave. There is no more time to waste.

Chelsea Rudman is a grassroots leader in the DC Paid Family Leave Coalition and the Director of Development & Strategic Partnerships at the Worker Rights Consortium. Her opinions expressed here are her own.