Mayor Muriel Bowser
Mayor Muriel Bowser Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Backers of D.C.’s paid family leave program announced with great fanfare a few weeks back that workers would be eligible for more benefits as soon as this summer. But all that could be on hold, if Mayor Muriel Bowser gets her way.

Bowser’s 2023 budget proposal would delay the implementation of these new benefits, which would allow many people working in the city to take up to 12 weeks of paid time off to care for a new child, help a sick family member, or recover from their own medical issues, until Oct. 1. That’s three months later than paid leave’s promoters on the D.C. Council were hoping for, after Acting Chief Financial Officer Fitzroy Lee said the city had the money to do so on July 1.

The paid leave fund is so flush with cash, in fact, that Lee found the District could afford to slash the tax it charges businesses to fund the program and still have a nearly $420 million surplus. Bowser’s proposal would still adopt that payroll tax cut on July 1, then send that surplus to cover all manner of other programs in her budget (lawmakers are still sorting out where Bowser wants to disperse the funds).

That means there is yet another battle brewing over the future of paid leave, though this is hardly anything new for the District. Bowser’s Department of Employment Services has consistently won begrudging praise for its efforts to set up the program amid the pandemic, but the mayor’s disdain for the policy (and some of its supporters) has contributed to a series of similar flare-ups in recent years. Bowser tried last year to redirect the extra money in the paid leave fund to cover a variety of expenses, including a payroll tax cut and other refunds for businesses, though the Council blocked those efforts.

Some lawmakers will try to do so again this year, but there’s no telling yet if they’ll be successful.

“The mayor has never been in favor of paid family leave. It’s never been something she wanted to champion,” says At-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson, who drew attention to Bowser’s proposed changes on Twitter shortly after the budget’s release. “So it’s not surprising, but it’s certainly disappointing.”

A key question hanging over this skirmish is: Why the three-month delay? Supportive lawmakers such as Henderson fear it will create confusion for anyone expecting a child, in particular, if there’s so much uncertainty about what their benefits will look like in the next few months.

Though there could well be a good reason for an Oct. 1 launch date. Henderson has heard some initial indications from DOES that the agency needs more time to be ready for the change in the program, which currently offers eight weeks of parental leave and six weeks for family or personal medical leave.

And after this article was published, DOES Director Unique Morris-Hughes told Loose Lips that those suspicions are correct, arguing it would be “impossible to make that level of change in the program” by July 1. Not only would it take work on the IT system underpinning the benefits program (in concert with the contractor managing it), but Morris-Hughes says the Council’s own budget language from a year ago suggested that any expanded benefits wouldn’t take effect until October 1.

“The administration has been behind this program 150 percent,” Morris-Hughes says. “The idea that we don’t support it or are dragging our feet is nonsense. It is simply not factual.”

At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman says she’ll press the agency for details as budget hearings start up in the coming weeks. But she can’t understand why DOES wouldn’t be ready when it had ample warning that an expansion of benefits could be on the way. Silverman worked to include language in last year’s budget directing the CFO to evaluate whether the program had enough money in the bank to afford an expansion.

“I know things in District government can take longer than you ever thought they would take, but why would they need three months on this?” says Silverman, one of paid leave’s most vocal backers on the Council. “If there’s not a good explanation, it seems like we should be offering these benefits right away.”

Henderson also believes it’s worth being a bit more “conservative and cautious” before yanking that $420 million surplus away from the fund and before seeing how those new benefits work in practice. Plus, the program launched at the very start of the pandemic, so she suspects the District still doesn’t have a ton of evidence about how much money it may need amid less chaotic conditions.

The challenge for the Council is that it’s a bit unclear where Bowser is moving all that surplus money. The fiscal impact statement for the Budget Support Act (a collection of policy changes tied to the spending plan) makes it clear that the paid leave money is being dispersed elsewhere, but it doesn’t specify where. LL speculates that Bowser had a lot of gaps to cover after Lee’s last-minute discovery that he’d misplaced $392 million in revenue surplus money.

“Last year, when it was going just a few places, it was easy to say, ‘We’re not going to do that, we’ll do something else,’” Henderson says. “But now it could be going to 60 different locations, so it’s harder to track down.”

Should lawmakers be able to find that money, however, they have some ideas what to do with it. Chiefly, they’d like to see some of the surplus money steered back into similar programs. For one, Silverman and Henderson have a still-unfunded bill to expand paid leave benefits to D.C. government employees, who administer the program yet don’t have access to the same level of leave that it offers.

“D.C. government workers don’t have the same benefits as the private sector,’” Henderson says. “That doesn’t make sense.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with comments from DOES Director Unique Morris-Hughes.