DC Paid Family Leave Law Back on the Drafting Table

Last week, workers in the District of Columbia seemingly gained the opportunity to take off time from work for compelling family reasons without forfeiting their entire pay.

This, of course, is especially important for low-wage workers, who are least likely to have any sort of paid family leave benefit and least likely to have enough saved to carry them and their families through times with no wage income.

The bill the Council passed — the Universal Paid Family Leave Amendment Act — has gone over to Congress, which can block it. But the responsible House Committee probably won’t even try before the time limit expires, what with its focus on other interventions and members now back in their homes bases.

The Mayor, who’d never liked the bill, refused to sign it. Wouldn’t veto it either, knowing the required majority of Councilmembers would override. But the law’s still not a finished piece of business.

In fact, the Mayor and heavy-hitters in the business community have succeeded in opening up the whole scheme again — always what opponents of a law aim for, since they have new opportunities to carve out exceptions, preferences and the like.

The Council Chairman, a strong supporter of the original bill, has said he’ll propose an alternative, hoping to quell the adamant opposition expressed by spokespersons for the business community.

But, he adds, the benefits won’t change. Doubtful then that the alternative will satisfy the Mayor, whose letter explaining why she wouldn’t sign the bill doesn’t accurately reflect what she said before.

Specially, she now says she’s gravely concerned because residents who work for the federal government or outside the city won’t get the benefit. She earlier, however, objected instead to coverage of people who worked for non-government employers in the District, but lived outside the city limits.

This, one notes, echoes the DC Chamber of Commerce, which also, of course, strenuously objects to the miniscule 0.62% payroll tax that would create the fund for paying the benefits.

One can surely understand the Chairman’s concern that the Chamber, the local Restaurant Association and other business groups will encourage members to resist what they must do to make the law work well — if not overtly, then by doing as little as they can possibly get away with.

One can also understand the Chairman’s concern about the Mayor’s response to the law — specifically her refusal to do the first necessary thing to make it work.

That would be including funds in her proposed budget to establish and then sustain the administrative apparatus needed to collect the required payroll taxes and then start using the funds to compensate eligible workers for their pay losses.

Lacking funding in the Mayor’s proposed budget, the Council would have to find the money — in other words, to shift funds from other programs, raise more revenues or some combination thereof. The District’s not truly short on money, but it’s already got pressing needs for more.

And as I’ve said, several times now — and as the Mayor said too — it faces likely, though as yet uncertain losses of federal revenues. Yet she’s responsible — or ought to be — for ensuring District laws have funds for administration, including enforcement.

Now here’s the thing that’s most striking to me. She had ample time to propose her own bill or, perhaps more politically savvy, changes in what the Council was crafting. Nada.

And we’ve nothing more now. Just the non-veto objections to what a substantial majority of the Council passed and her virtual charge to “revisit” it. Where’s the leadership here?

In any event, the Chairman seems inclined to consider the vocal business community’s preference for a mandate, rather than a payroll tax.

A bill reportedly just introduced by Councilmembers Jack Evans and Mary Cheh moves in this direction, but without relieving larger businesses and other comparable organizations, e.g. hospitals, universities, of any tax at all.

Specifically, it would reduce the payroll tax to 0.2% for larger employers (those with more than 50 employees) and to 0.4% for small employers. The larger would then have to fund the same paid leave benefits the current law requires however they saw fit.

The payroll tax would, as the current law envisions, create a funding pool to pay the benefits covered workers would receive when taking time off for certain personal and family needs.

Funds would apparently still be collected, managed and distributed by a District agency. But payouts would go only to workers for small businesses and other small-staffed organizations in the District, e.g., nonprofit service providers, research and advocacy organizations.

This, at first glance, would seem like a reasonable compromise. Whether it would satisfy the local Chamber of Commerce, Restaurant Association and other employers that fretted remains to be seen.

Likewise the Mayor, who’s understandably deferred a substantive response until her staff have delved into the bill itself. Worth noting, however, that she wouldn’t say whether she supports the benefits it preserves.

Nor whether it allays any of her other concerns, including the administrative costs District budgets would have to cover.

Councilmember Elissa Silverman — a champion of the original bill and now one of the advocates who’s outspokenly distressed by the move to change it — reportedly views the new bill as problematic because it would require a new agency or the equivalent to ensure that larger employers complied with their payroll tax obligations.

But we’d have needed provisions for enforcement anyway. And only the District can enforce its laws, though it could contract out the routine administrative functions. An earlier report on Councilmembers’ predilections suggested Evans might argue for this.

More to the point, Silverman questions whether the lower payroll taxes will suffice to cover the benefits workers for small employers will still be entitled to. One would hope that the Council would seek a disinterested, reliable projection.

Needless to say, some other ardent backers of the paid leave law are, like Silverman, distressed (to put it mildly) by the Council Chairman’s decision to even tamper with the paid leave law — “delaying and sabotaging” it, says a local union official on behalf of the DC Paid Family Leave Campaign.

I wouldn’t go there at this point. We need, I think, to have a strong paid family leave law that has as many affected and other actively interested forces on board as possible.

A lot of work to do before — and after — covered workers can actually start taking leave without forfeiting all their pay. And it won’t get done effectively unless the Mayor exercises the leadership that only she can.

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