Washington, DC, passed one of the nation’s most generous paid family leave laws on Tuesday, joining four other states with programs in place or in the works that make sure all workers can take paid time off to care for their families. It will give eight weeks of paid leave to new parents, and six weeks of leave for other family caregiving, to more than half a million private sector and nonprofit workers.
While DC Mayor Muriel Bowser said she doesn’t want to sign the bill, there’s not much point in her vetoing it; the DC City Council passed it with a veto-proof 9-4 majority. So unless Congress intervenes to stop the law from going into effect, benefits should start paying out in 2020.
The United States is one of the only countries in the world that doesn’t offer national paid maternity leave — and new birth mothers aren’t the only ones who might need time off to care for their families. New dads and adoptive parents need time off to bond and establish caregiving routines. Anyone at any time might need to care for a relative, or for themselves, due to a long-term illness like cancer or a short-term medical emergency like a broken leg.
It’s a basic enough need that even President-elect Donald Trump, who isn’t known for his support of progressive reforms, says he has a plan for paid maternity leave. It’s a really bad one, though, and it’s not clear whether Republicans in Congress would make the issue a priority. They certainly didn’t under President Obama.
That’s why four states and the District of Columbia haven’t waited for Congress to act to pass their own paid leave programs, and why we can expect more states to pass family leave legislation under President Trump.
DC’s plan is an insurance program, not an employer mandate — which is the best policy bet for universal paid leave
DC’s plan sets up a new social insurance program, funded by a 0.62 percent payroll tax on employers. This is the same approach taken by the other four states that have passed paid family leave: California, Rhode Island, and New Jersey have already implemented their programs, and New York’s will go into effect starting in 2018. While the exact tax rates and benefit formulas differ from state to state, all four states have established (or are establishing) insurance programs to pay employees while they are on leave instead of mandating pay by employers.
As Vox’s Matt Yglesias has explained, this kind of model is the best option for truly universal coverage and, in particular, better than simply requiring employers provide paid leave — an option that some DC business interests and council members tried to push through at the last minute.
Employer mandates like these almost always have exceptions for small businesses, since it’s harder for them to come up with the resources to offer leave than big companies like Walmart. But that also means leaving many people who work at smaller businesses without paid leave.
Because the DC parental leave benefit is funded through a payroll tax instead of an employer mandate, DC was able to cover not just employees of small businesses but also people who work part time or for tips, or who are self-employed. It covers everybody who works in the District of Columbia and not for the government, even if they live outside the District. While that’s prompted some grumbling over the idea that a tax collected inside the District would be paying for people who live elsewhere, advocates argue that it will give DC businesses a competitive advantage. They also argue that including Virginia and Maryland residents expands the program’s risk pool, helping to smooth out demand for benefits and ultimately lowering the program’s cost.
The original proposal was for a groundbreaking 16 weeks of leave, which would have topped the 12-week plan that New York state passed in April and that will go into effect in 2018. But DC’s 16 weeks got whittled down to eight weeks of parental leave for a new child, six weeks for family caregiving, and two weeks for personal medical leave (which is the most expensive benefit to insure because it happens most frequently, but also the one that workers are least likely to need for more than a week or two at a time).
But it’s still the nation’s most generous plan in terms of how much money workers will get. People who make up to 1.5 times the minimum wage (or about $810 a week) can get 90 percent of their income from the program and then 50 percent of whatever they make above that with a cap of $1,000 per week.
Mayor Bowser said she opposed the bill’s $250 million price tag and the fact that DC would have to set up new bureaucracy to run it. But advocates say it’s worth it, and that no other model comes close to working as well.
“The standard pushback is, ‘Oh, if you make businesses pay more, they’ll just lay people off’ — but really it’s a tiny cost for an awesome benefit,” said Rebecca Ennen, deputy director of development and communications at Jews United for Justice. “It makes a lot of sense for businesses.”
A 0.62 percent tax is so small that it’s almost a “rounding error,” Ennen said, especially for companies with big payrolls. Besides, paid leave keeps employees happier and reduces turnover costs, and has worked well for businesses in California, Rhode Island, and New Jersey, where similar social insurance programs have already been implemented.
But paid leave insurance is especially important for both low-income workers and small businesses, Ennen said.
Low-wage workers and part-time employees are both the least likely to be offered paid leave through their jobs and the least likely to be included under new employer mandate programs. It’s hard enough to survive on minimum wage, let alone on 55 percent of it, which some paid leave programs that are less generous than DC’s offer.
And for small businesses like dog walkers or bakeries, you still need somebody to walk the dogs or bake the muffins when somebody has a baby, which often means hiring temporary help to replace someone on leave. Paying a small tax into an insurance program is a lot cheaper than paying for two workers at once — the one on paid leave, and the one working — and a lot more humane than offering no pay at all to the person who needs to take time off.
Jews United for Justice was one of many local groups, including the DC Working Families Party, DC Jobs With Justice, and local unions, that banded together to form the DC Paid Family Leave Coalition and work to pass the bill.
A strong grassroots movement for paid leave has been gaining momentum over the past several years, and doesn’t show signs of stopping under Trump. Activists already have their sights set on other near-future victories in states like Maryland, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Oregon.
America is way behind other countries on paid parental leave — and low-income workers have it the hardest
"Compared to what the rest of the world does, [the United States is] definitely backward," said paid leave advocate Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work, a leading national coalition on paid leave efforts. "We're the outlier."
In America, only 12 percent of workers have access to paid family leave through their employer, and that access is unequally distributed. Only 5 percent of workers in the lowest-paid 25 percent of the workforce have employer-sponsored paid leave, while 22 percent of the top 10 percent of earners do. These figures don't count policies like short-term disability or sick leave, which many new parents use to cobble together a sort of ad hoc parental leave.
Many employers don't provide unpaid leave, either. There is a federal law called the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) that protects your job for up to 12 weeks — unpaid — if you take time off for a new child or another serious family or medical issue. But 40 percent of American workers don't qualify for those benefits, either because they haven't been at their job long enough or because their company is too small (the FMLA regulations only apply to companies with 50 or more workers). And even among those who do qualify for FMLA, many can't afford to spend three months without drawing a paycheck.
Lacking paid leave puts a huge burden on new parents. It hurts women's overall ability to participate in the workforce, prevents fathers from being equal partners in child rearing, and has devastating effects on women's health and ability to parent.
A recent investigation by In These Times found that one in four working mothers goes back to work within two weeks of childbirth, usually due to financial pressures. But going back to work so soon can have nightmarish consequences for a mother's physical and mental health.
Women report going back to work still bleeding from vaginal injuries or C-sections. They work 12-hour days and can't breastfeed their new baby, either because they're too stressed or because they simply don't have time. They plunge into postpartum depression, and they despair of establishing a healthy parenting routine.
The grassroots push for paid family and sick leave at the state and local level has had a lot of success in a short time. But the vast majority of the country still has no universal paid leave guarantees at all, much less benefits that compare to those in Silicon Valley or in the rest of the developed world.
The national public policy answer to this problem could look something like the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (FAMILY Act), introduced in Congress by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT). It minimizes the burden on employers by levying a tiny (0.2 percent each on the employer and employee) payroll tax on everyone, and it guarantees 12 weeks of leave at two-thirds pay for everyone who works.
The FAMILY Act is similar to programs passed by four states and the District of Columbia over the past decade. So far, research on the three that have been enacted in California, Rhode Island, and New Jersey has been encouraging — the programs have helped workers, and haven’t harmed businesses or killed jobs.
But as promising as it is, the FAMILY Act has gone nowhere in a Republican-dominated Congress under President Obama, and the same is likely to be true under Trump. It’s possible that Republicans could get behind Trump’s maternity leave plan, but it would be woefully inadequate in comparison — it only covers new mothers, and only for six weeks, and Trump’s plan to pay for it doesn’t make any sense.
So at least for the next four years, state and local efforts like DC’s are the most promising for working families.