by Shirley Adelstein
ANC 3F02 commissioner
Nearly everyone will at some point find themselves welcoming a child into their family, recovering from injury or illness, or caring for a loved one who is sick or dying. These are among the most universal, transformative experiences in life. Yet for too many people, these events leave them torn between their jobs and caring for themselves or their families.
Unfortunately, workplace policies have fallen far out of line with social and economic realities. I call upon our community to support the City Council’s efforts to establish a paid family and medical leave program for DC. Paid leave is critical for the well-being of workers, families, businesses, and our community.
It’s not just the right thing to do. In our modern society, it’s also the smart thing to do.
The DC Council is currently considering the Universal Paid Leave Act, which would provide paid leave to employees experiencing a qualifying life event. The initial proposal would cover 16 weeks annually of paid leave for the birth of a new child, adoption, fostering, or personal/family medical issues. The program would be available to nearly everyone who works or lives in DC, and it would be funded by a small payroll tax on employers. Federal employees and self-employed individuals would have the opportunity to pay in themselves. Under the program, wages would be replaced in a progressive fashion as a percentage of an employee’s salary up to a cap.
It appears likely that some of these details will change as the City Council refines the proposal. Last week, Chairman Mendelson proposed a new draft that reduced the length of leave to 12 weeks, lowered the maximum wage reimbursement level, and narrowed the eligible population.
There is legitimate room for debate about some elements of the bill. Without question, the program must be fiscally sound and sustainable. But one thing is clear: it is no longer feasible for us to ignore the glaring mismatch between family needs and public policy.
Gone are the days when employers could expect their employees to be unencumbered by caregiving responsibilities. Yet despite these changes, workplace policies in the United States remain mired in the past. Nationally, only 13 percent of workers have access to paid family leave, and these workers are disproportionately in the top 10 percent of wage earners.
This lack of support for working caregivers is simply astonishing and completely out of line with the rest of the developed world. The United States is the only high-income country that does not mandate any paid maternity leave, and it is one of only a handful that do not mandate any paid paternity leave.
The national Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which has not been updated since the 1990s, provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave to covered employees. Because this law does not cover employers with fewer than 50 employees, only 60 percent of employees are eligible. And because the law only provides unpaid leave, an even smaller percent of employees are ever able to use it.
In DC, FMLA was extended to cover 16 weeks, but it still offers only unpaid leave and covers only a portion of employees. In practice, this makes family and medical leave a luxury of the affluent. In a city like ours, where the cost of living is among the highest in the nation and child care costs more than public college tuition, paid leave is truly a necessity.
Opponents of paid leave legislation often cite concerns about the impact on businesses, especially small businesses. But in states where paid family leave has been implemented, available data provide little evidence to support this. Research shows that paid leave programs have many benefits, including numerous economic benefits such as increased labor force participation, employee retention, family financial stability, and generally neutral or positive impacts for individual businesses. Citing these business benefits, over 200 business school faculty members recently signed a letter to Congress in support of making paid family and medical leave available to all working families.
It is critical to ensure that any paid leave program is fiscally sustainable. But given that the United States stands alone in offering zero weeks of paid family leave, it is simply implausible to argue that such a program is incompatible with a robust economy. It is neither conscionable nor practical to continue to overlook the needs of working families.
In a 21st century society, paid family and medical leave is inevitable. The social and demographic trends that have changed the work and family landscape are not reversing course. If anything, the problem will become more acute. This is an opportunity for DC to lead the nation rather than falling behind. For the sake of our community, we must support paid family and medical leave.
How can you support the DC Paid Family Leave Campaign? Sign the online petition, email the Council your thoughts, make a quick call every Wednesday to a councilmember or the Mayor, or connect a local business with the DC Paid Family Leave Coalition.
To learn more, visit dcpaidfamilyleave.org.
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