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During his State of the Union speech in January, President Barack Obama lamented that millions of Americans do not have paid sick and parental leave. "And that forces too many parents to make the gut-wrenching choice between a paycheck and a sick kid at home," he said at the time.
His words haven't prompted Congress to adopt any nationwide policies, but a pair of legislators and a coalition of advocacy groups are hoping to do away with that "gut-wrenching choice" in the nation's capital.
D.C. Council members Elissa Silverman and David Grosso — independents who hold at-large seats — on Tuesday introduced the Universal Paid Leave Act of 2015, under which all D.C. residents and workers would be eligible for 16 weeks of paid leave for medical or family reasons, including the birth, adoption or fostering of a child.
"Almost every country in the world has paid family leave except for the United States, and I think it's time that we rectify that," says Silverman, a first-term Council member who has identified with progressive causes like raising the minimum wage.
If passed, the bill would offer D.C. workers the most generous paid leave in the country.
Last year, the D.C. government adopted a new policy granting city employees up to eight weeks of paid sick and family leave. In January, Obama issued an executive order allowing federal employees to take up to six weeks of paid leave after the birth of a child, and last month he ordered that federal contractors give workers up to seven days of paid leave.
And though D.C. law allows employees to take up to 16 weeks of leave after having a child and not lose their job, it does not require that the leave be paid. And for those employers that do offer paid leave, it is often under the guide of short- and long-term disability plans, which means that the amount paid can be less than an employee's usual salary.
But under Silverman and Grosso's bill, almost all D.C. workers holding full- and part-time jobs would be eligible for paid leave for family or medical reasons.
The measure would work much like unemployment insurance. Private employers would pay into a new Family and Medical Leave Fund, while federal government workers who live in D.C., along with residents who work outside the city, would make personal contributions to the fund.
Contributions would vary by salary; 1 percent for every employee making over $150,000 per year, 0.8 percent for those in the $50,000-150,000 range, and so on down. Self-employed residents would be allowed to opt out.
An employee taking leave would file a claim with the fund, which would pay out the benefits. Under the bill, the fund would cover 100 percent of the first $1,000 an employee makers per week and 50 percent thereafter, for a maximum of $3,000 per week over the course of the leave taken.
In 2014, D.C. received a $96,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to study options for expanding paid leave. Silverman says that the bill being introduced Tuesday draws from some of the research done for that study, as well as conversations her staff had with officials in California, New Jersey and Rhode Island — the three states that currently have paid leave policies on the books, albeit none approaching the amount of time being considered in the D.C. bill.
Advocates say they do not yet have know how much the bill would cost employers, but that an estimate will be produced by the Office D.C. Chief Financial Officer as the measure moves its way through the Council.
Silverman says she recognizes that the bill will have a cost to both employers and employees working outside D.C., but that only with a universal approach will the measure succeed.
"There is a cost, but just like why we have a health insurance exchange, which then pools risk and lowers the cost for everyone, paid family leave takes the same approach," she says.
Advocates say that while the bill will benefit all D.C.-based employees, it's most important for low-income workers.
"I can't tell you how many times I've sat in front of a worker who is pregnant, and in what should be a joyful time is sitting in front of me crying and saying she won't have an income anymore as soon as her baby comes into the world," says Sheena Wadhawan, advocacy director at the D.C. Employment Justice Center, one of the dozens of organizations backing the bills.
"This bill is important because workers should be able to have a child, should be able to care for their families without it turning into the worst moment in their lives when they lose their income and are forced to choose between caring for their children and being able to pay their rent," she adds.
But as with many measures that have emanated from the Council, some sectors of the business community are concerned with the costs of providing paid leave — and say those costs could force businesses to relocate to outside the city.
"While the business community definitely wants happy employees, our concern is that there are some issues that haven't been addressed, some of the details, and we're worried that this could affect the business climate in Washington, D.C.," says Harry Wingo, president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce.
Wingo says he was initially consulted when the bill was being drafted, but that the chamber will not support the version of the bill being introduced.
"Our concern is that this would go further than any other type of legislation in the nation, in a bad way. The burden would be completely on employers, so this would be employer funded, and in fact employees would not be contributing as they do in other systems," he says.
Grosso says that contributions to the fund fall exclusively on employers because the city's charter prohibits it from imposing a tax on non-residents. And even though the cost will fall on employers, Silverman says those same employers would benefit from having happier employees.
"I understand the chamber's concerns, but study after study show that workers who feel like their employer care about them end up being more productive workers, and that benefits employers," she says.
That's what Jamie Davis-Smith, who attended the Tuesday Council session with her 10-month-old son in tow, said about the six weeks paid leave her husband was given by his employer.
"I know that for families such as my own that have been lucky enough to experience even a short period of paid leave, it really results in a great appreciation to your employer and promotes a lot of loyalty to your employer," she says.
Advocates also say that the business community similarly complained about other measures passed by the Council, including a 2008 bill requiring that all employers give employees paid sick leave. In May, the D.C. Auditor published a report saying that that law — which was expanded in 2014 to include tipped workers — had "minimal impact on employers."
Grosso says the bill would move D.C. closer to what is considered a standard benefit for families in many other countries.
"In other countries, this is the norm. And this is how it is done, and it is supported because they believe in strong families in other countries better than we do here," he says.
The bill has been assigned to a Council committee for a hearing and markup, after which it would go to the full Council for voting. Two separate votes are required for any legislation to pass, after which it is sent to the mayor for consideration.
According to Grosso's office, the bill is being co-sponsored by Council members Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1), LaRuby May (D-Ward 8), Anita Bonds (D-At Large), Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), and Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) — giving it enough votes to pass the Council.