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One of the District’s most anticipated pieces of legislation this year has just undergone some significant revisions.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson—who also chairs the legislature’s Committee of the Whole—on Monday circulated a draft committee print of the Universal Paid Leave Act of 2016. A third hearing on the bill is scheduled for Thursday. The amended bill reflects an effort to tighten the initial bill‘s provisions and ultimately to drive down expected costs. It reduces the maximum annual leave an individual with a qualifying condition is eligible for from 16 to 12 weeks, cuts the wage-replacement rate for beneficiaries across all incomes, and requires residents to exhaust their sick leave from the Accrued Sick and Safe Leave Act of 2008 before tapping into the universal benefit.
In a statement, Mendelson says the draft is designed to focus the discussion on remaining concerns.
“This draft is unlikely to be the final draft marked up by the Committee of the Whole,” he explains. “While it reflects changes to the introduced version of the bill, I do not believe it as yet strikes the best balance between cost and benefits. Nor does it address all of the concerns that have been raised thus far. Further changes are likely based on the continued feedback we will receive.”
Some of that feedback came quickly: Paid-leave advocates held a conference call to discuss the changes on Tuesday morning. According to Rebecca Ennen, communications and development director for Jews United for Justice, “the most troubling” aspect of the modifications is that they now include a “narrow definition of families.”
Based on her reading of the bill, Ennen said, the act would not cover parents, siblings, or adult children—those who fall outside the definition of “legal custody.” The bill describes a “family member” as “a person to whom the eligible individual is related by legal custody, domestic partnership, or marriage,” or “a foster child.” A source with knowledge of how the draft was created tells City Desk that siblings were intentionally left out and that “legal relationships” were intended to be the basis for eligibility; still, residents are entitled to work-protections through the D.C. FMLA and privately bought temporary-disability insurance. “I hope this is an oversight,” said Ennen.
Additionally, the current draft excludes mental-health issues from qualifying as “serious health conditions,” a category limited to physical injuries and impairments that require inpatient care or continuing home treatment, or that are germane to pregnancies. The revised draft does maintain allowances for self care in addition to family care.
“Some of the other changes, especially related to qualifying medical conditions, are surprising and don’t address real struggles,” Ennen said. “The decision about when a person needs to take leave should be left to healthcare professionals—not politicians. I think we can all agree that [mental-health conditions] are a big healthcare need.”
The draft print “applies the [paid-leave] program only to employees working in the private sector in the District,” Mendelson noted, such that federal workers, residents working outside D.C., and local-government employees are not eligible. (District employees already have their own paid-leave benefit, of up to eight weeks.) That means “more than 30 percent of the people who work in D.C. would be excluded” under the revised legislation, Ennen explained.
Still, both she and Jaime Contreras, vice president of SEIU 32BJ—a property-service workers union—indicated that they look forward to working with the Council and the Committee of the Whole to come up with a final version.
“We applaud the Chairman for taking a step in the right direction to help ease pressures facing low-wage workers in the District,” Contreras said in statement issued on Tuesday morning. “However, we have concerns that corporate lobbyists will continue to try to weaken the bill. Working families should always come first for the District, especially given that businesses will assuredly continue to thrive in the District’s strong and growing economy.”
How much the legislation will cost to pay out, given that it’s being financed through a limited tax on employers, has been among lawmakers’ and financial experts’ biggest concerns. Members of D.C.’s business community have voiced worry in regards to the tax. In January, however, Mendelson told City Desk that “there’s potential for this bill to make the District of Columbia more competitive in the region,” in part because firms that locate here would compete on a more level playing field.
The current legislation provides 90 percent wage replacement to workers earning up to twice D.C.’s minimum wage, or $21 an hour; residents earning above that threshold would be entitled to 90 percent of double D.C.’s minimum wage plus half of the difference between it and their own average weekly wage rate, up to $1,500 a week. Previously, the legislation offered a maximum wage replacement of 100 percent for residents making up to $52,000 a year; residents making above $1,000 a week were entitled to a maximum weekly benefit of $3,000.
In a statement, At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman—who along with At-Large Councilmember David Grosso introduced the bill to their colleagues last year—said she is “confident” D.C. can strike the right balance.
“We have heard from the experiences in other states that paid leave programs must meet the needs of both workers and their employers, which includes making sure no one is put in the position of not being able to afford to take leave,” Silverman said. “Chairman Mendelson has suggested changes in a discussion draft, and I look forward to more discussion on who the program should include, what life events qualify, and how to control cost. I am particularly looking forward to hearing public input from employees, residents, and businesses on Thursday and over the months to come.”
In an interview, Grosso said he believes the draft has “moved the conversation” forward on paid leave and that he’s committed to getting the tax levied on businesses at or under one percent of total payroll. He characterized the new wage-replacement rates as “not that far off” from what he’d originally introduced, adding that most workers who go on paid leave do not take it for all the weeks they’re entitled to. Still, Grosso said he disagreed with the definition of family included in the new print, saying that the city administration would be able to coordinate an expansive one.
“I’m not sure why we’re so afraid of who’s included in the definition of family,” he said. Nonetheless: “My biggest concern right now is that this hasn’t gone far enough to get us down to [a] one percent [tax on employer payroll].”
Thursday’s hearing on paid leave is scheduled for 4 p.m. at the Wilson Building. About 140 witnesses are tentatively expected to testify.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery