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As D.C. Debates Paid-Leave, One Big Question Remains: How Much Will It Cost?

The D.C. Council is debating a bill that would grant workers in D.C. 16 weeks of paid family and medical leave — the most generous policy in the country.
Christian Glatz: http://www.flickr.com/photos/24092454@N00/12582433/
The D.C. Council is debating a bill that would grant workers in D.C. 16 weeks of paid family and medical leave — the most generous policy in the country.

Last December, advocates for a proposed bill that would grant virtually all workers in D.C. 16 weeks of paid family leave testified in favor of the measure, saying it would allow tens of thousands of residents to avoid the pain of choosing between spending time with a newborn and earning a paycheck.

But for all the emotional appeals they made to Council members, there was one question they couldn't answer: just how much would providing that much paid leave actually cost?

Today legislators may get more clarity on the dollars and cents, as the Council holds the second of three hearings on the bill introduced in October by Council members David Grosso (I-At Large) and Elissa Silverman (I-At Large). As written, the bill would require employers to pay a per-employee tax, with the proceeds being deposited in a fund that would pay out benefits when leave is taken.

Both the D.C. Chief Financial Officer and Council Budget Office are expected to lay out the costs of the bill — the CFO as early as today, and the Budget Office at some point this month — but one report published this week is already setting a price range for different paid-leave programs: from $30.8 million to $150.9 million per year.

The report from the Institute for Women's Policy Research was paid for through a $98,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, and explores five different paid-leave models that D.C. could consider. (It was finished in November, but only published on Tuesday.)

Currently, the report estimates that D.C. workers take 72,127 paid and medical leaves per year, worth $538.5 million in time taken. The overwhelming majority of that — $415.2 million — is unpaid.

Under any paid-leave scenario, leave requests would increase between 2,000 and 4,000 per year.

The five scenarios the report considered are:

  • Eight weeks of paid family leave.
  • Eight weeks of paid family and medical leave.
  • Twelve weeks of paid leave under federal Family and Medical Leave Act.
  • Sixteen weeks of paid leave under federal Family and Medical Leave Act.
  • Sixteen weeks of paid leave under D.C. Family and Medical Leave Act. (Broader eligibility)

Under the first scenario — which is what D.C. government workers currently get — the report estimates that it would cost $30.8 million per year. If the requirement were expanded to include family and sick leave, the cost would jump to $93.6 million.

With paid family and medical leave for 12 weeks, the cost would stand at $114 million. And at 16 weeks of paid and family leave, the cost would range from $124 to $150 million, depending on whether federal or D.C. eligibility standards are applied.

While the report does not consider who would pay for the different scenarios, it does conclude that under any of the options, "uncompensated leave costs are reduced between 5 and 20 percent for private D.C. employees." It also says that D.C. could set up and administer any of the programs "for less than one percent of payroll."

It also makes broader arguments in favor of paid-leave programs: they keep people taking leave for medical or family reasons out of poverty, they help reduce the costs of public assistance programs, and they even save employers money from reduced turnover.

The report does not specifically address Grosso and Silverman's bill, though, which requires employers to fully bear the costs of the paid-leave. But the business community has rallied against that bill, and this week a report commissioned by the Greater Washington Board of Trade put the cost of their bill at over $700 million per year — with the tax on employers only covering roughly half of it.

While many Council members have expressed support for Grosso and Silverman's bill, others have said that they are willing to tweak it. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said that while it's a safe bet that a paid-leave bill will pass the Council, it's unlikely to be the exact measure proposed by Grosso and Silverman.

Mayor Muriel Bowser has expressed support for the idea of paid-leave, but has not committed to any one proposal. City Administrator Rashad Young will be testifying today on the bill, as will CFO Jeffrey DeWitt and Deputy Mayor for Greater Economic Opportunity Courtney Snowden.

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