D.C. Council passes one of the nation’s most generous paid family leave bills

In a 9-4 vote Tuesday afternoon, the D.C. City Council approved one of the most generous paid family leave plans in the country. Tuesday’s vote also rejected an 11th-hour proposed amendment to the bill that would change funding for the benefits.

Granted preliminary approval on Dec. 6, the council voted in favor of the Universal Paid-Leave Amendment Act, which gives eight weeks of leave to new parents, six for caring for a gravely ill member of the family, and two for personal sick leave.

With Tuesday’s vote, the paid leave program will be funded by a new business tax that would raise $250 million a year to cover costs.

“We’re thrilled. We think this is just an incredible step forward for the people of this city,” said Rebecca Ennen, media coordinator for DC Paid Family Leave, a coalition of 200 businesses, non-profits, national networks and think tanks.

Mayor Muriel Bowser has not said if she would veto the bill. If she does not veto the bill, it could become law without her signature, said Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), who co-wrote the amendment. The council can, in turn, sustain the veto or override the veto with nine people voting in favor of keeping the bill, she added.

On Monday, Cheh and Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) proposed new terms that kept the same paid leave times of the original bill, but changed how the benefits would be funded.

“I am committed entirely to the paid family leave and to the particulars of the bill that passed. So there’s no question to the ultimate objective,” Cheh told the NewsHour. “The only question was how we should pay for it and how it is implemented.”

Instead of a public insurance plan footing the bill, the two council members proposed an amendment that the benefits be paid for by an individual-employer mandate, meaning employers will agree to pay for parental leave when employees need to access it. Additionally, tax credits for small businesses would help cover the cost of the benefits.

Evans and Cheh have said the revised bill would cost $40 million a year as opposed to the estimated $250 million in the original version, the Post reported. Cheh also said that, under the amendment, an office to run the program would not be needed.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson finalized the original version of the bill, which Cheh voted for and Evans voted against earlier this month. Councilmembers David Grosso and Elissa Silverman drafted a first version of the bill with assistance from some groups in the DC Paid Family Leave coalition, Ennen said. Mendelson was critical of the new proposal, saying the cost plan doesn’t work without a new tax to cover the program’s financial burden.

Ennen said the amendment makes businesses solely responsible for covering their employees’ leave.

“It puts the finances of the employer directly against the employee. And nobody should be putting the employers in that position,” Ennen said. “If it’s on the employer to provide it, it just creates a terrible incentive for them to discriminate, to deny the leave.

Mayor Muriel Bowser, whose office would oversee the leave program, has fought the bill in the past, criticizing the millions of dollars it would take to set up the program. However, she told the Post on Monday that she would probably support the revised bill.

The D.C. Chamber of Commerce has always opposed the bill, proposed initially in 2015, saying D.C. business taxes would pay for workers in Maryland or Virginia. A former D.C. Council member wrote in the Post that more than 60 percent who would benefit from the legislation live outside the District.

Before the vote, several businesses and groups came out in support of the alternate legislation, as shown by a recent full-page ad in the Post.

Economist Christopher Ruhm told the NewsHour last year that businesses in California, which became the first state to enact a paid family leave law, reported either “positive or, at worst, neutral effects.”

The United States and Papua New Guinea are the only countries in the world that do not provide any paid time off for new mothers. Why haven’t maternity leave laws kept pace with the increase of working parents? Economics correspondent Paul Solman explores the debate on whether time off for new parents is also good for business.

Some small businesses also expressed their support for a family leave program, while a 2015 poll found that more than 80 percent of D.C. voters would want similar proposals.

Seven of the 13 council members were needed to vote in favor of the paid leave bill for it to become law.

The vote came after the presidential election, when President-elect Donald Trump became the first Republican candidate to put a focus on paid family leave and child-care assistance. During the campaign, Trump suggested a six-week paid leave for mothers, while his opponent Hillary Clinton called for 12 weeks of paid leave.

Besides Papua New Guinea, the U.S. lags behind every country in the world in terms of paid leave for child care. But the D.C. plan offers more time and wage reimbursement than any other plan in the U.S.

California was the first state to offer a paid family leave plan in 2004. New Jersey and Rhode Island soon followed, while New York’s plan begins in 2018.