To Ensure Paid Family Leave For DC, It’s Time for You to Act

In less than a week, the DC Council will vote to give District residents and workers something that we desperately need: the right to care for a newborn child, tend to a sick relative, or recover from a serious illness or injury without fear of financial distress.

Paid family leave is a guaranteed right in almost every country around the world — but, shockingly, not in the US. Only a few states currently provide for it. But being able to take care of yourself and your loved ones without losing your job or income is vital for our health and stability. It shouldn’t be a privilege reserved only for the 12% of Americans whose employers have decided to offer it.

Me (left) with friends canvassing for paid family and medical leave

Right now, DC is poised to do right by the vast majority of hard working people and families who make our economy thrive. On December 6th, the Universal Paid Leave Actpassed its first vote in the Council, 11–2. Next Tuesday, December 20th, it will come for its second and final vote. But success is not guaranteed.

With just a few days remaining before the Council votes on our future, DC residents must keep the pressure on our elected officials.

Tell the people who represent you that you are counting on them to support this legislation. It’s easy — go to bit.ly/time4pfl.

So what does the bill say? Here are the basics (and more info here):

Under the Universal Paid Leave Act (UPLA), working people will be able to take eight weeks of paid leave to bond with a new child, six weeks to care for a relative, and two weeks for a personal medical need. At some point we’ll face a family or health situation covered by this bill and instead of sacrificing a loved one’s care to keep your paycheck, you can take the time you need to be there and then, ideally, return to work. The program will work as social insurance, with workers drawing on a pool of money funded by a small contribution from district employers. Think unemployment insurance except designed to keep you in the workforce from the start.

Lowest-wage workers will benefit the most by receiving 90% of their usual income when they need to take leave. This allows people all across our community — not just a privileged few — to afford care for their families, keep their jobs, and continue to make it work on tight budgets.

At a public hearing in February, we heard from a single mom who went into premature labor from working double shifts and a Ward 8 resident who went to radiation treatments on her lunch break. Right now, 81% of Latin@ families in DC can’t afford to take any family and medical leave. Babies born in Ward 8 are 10 times more likely to die as infants as babies in Ward 3, and paid leave is proven to lower infant mortality. It’s unacceptable that this is happening in the nation’s capital, and the Council now has an opportunity to make it right.

Members of SEIU at the first vote on the Universal Paid Leave Act

Some DC business interests and opponents have attempted to portray this legislation as some kind of radical extravagance that will hurt business in the city. According to the Council Budget Office’s own analysis, that’s nonsense.

In reality, this bill will help small business owners who currently can’t afford to pay workers who need to family or medical leave.

Right now, businesses have to pay out of pocket to cover an employee on leave. Or, more tragically, they have to tell a person they can’t take the leave they need (for chemo, for caretaking, for becoming a new parent) if they don’t have the money on hand. Many small business owners don’t like this status quo. But under the Universal Paid Leave Act, employers contribute .62% of their payroll budget into an insurance fund, and then, when an employee needs to take leave, they can get their pay from the insurance system, not out of the business’ pocket.

For example, at Lighthouse Yoga Center in Petworth, an amazing yoga teacher had a baby. The studio could not afford to pay both her maternity leave AND a sub for her classes. The studio owner, therefore, paid the teacher out of her own pocket because she felt she had to. The owner, Julie, supports this program because she totally could contribute .62% of her payroll a year into this fund — and then when someone needs to take leave, she just pays a sub with the money she would have paid the teacher. Nothing else out of pocket. Cost savings.

Stories like these are why nearly 100 small businesses across DC have vocally supported this bill since the beginning. They want to do right by their employees but can’t without the support the Universal Paid Leave Act would provide. Plus, they know that offering basic benefits like this helps them attract and retain great employees. (And small businesses, mind you, want DC to lead on a program that creates a level playing field for all their employees — these business owners can tell you first hand that a benefit only covering certain residents in a workforce as diverse and transient as ours would be a logistical and ethical nightmare.)

Canvassing for paid family and medical leave this summer

This program will dramatically improve the quality of life for DC’s working families. It will encourage more people — especially women — to work in DC, in turn giving a boon to local businesses. And when more people have more financial stability to weather life’s inevitable storms, they are more able to afford to stay in their homes, pay their bills, provide for their families, and have sound peace of mind that cannot be measured. Self sufficiency and basic decency is ultimately the goal of paid leave after all.

This program is still not a done deal though. Influential corporate lobbyists are fighting hard to kill the bill — and they appear to have Mayor Bowser as an ally.

We can’t let that happen. So think about the options that you’ll have when you choose to have a child, or when an aging parent or a partner gets sick. Think about whether you’d like to live in a city where infants don’t need to be separated from their mothers just days after birth, and where people who break an arm or suffer from a relapse are given a fair shot at the chance they need to get well.

To ensure that the Universal Paid Leave Act is passed on December 20th, it’s going to take one last major push. We can’t give up now. Pick up the phone and call your Councilmembers. Tell them that on December 20th, you want them to vote yes on the Universal Paid Leave Act. It’s time to put our families and our workers first.

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