D.C. Already Passed A Paid Family Leave Law. Here’s Why The Council Is Still Discussing It

by Rachel Sadon in News

Oct 10, 2017 10:00 am

A bit more than a year after At-large Councilmembers David Grosso and Elissa Silverman introduced a bill to offer the most generous paid family leave program in the country, the D.C. Council passed a pared back version and the mayor let it advance without her signature. Red-and-white stickers declaring support and huffy op-eds warning of dire consequences, for the most part, both fell away. All of a sudden, though, there’s been a flurry of activity again.

The Universal Paid Leave Act, often referred to as UPLA, is back at the dais after councilmembers introduced five bills to modify the program. The D.C. Council is having a hearing today, and it will certainly be another all-day marathon of testimony. Here’s what is going on.

What exactly is UPLA again?

In December of 2016, the D.C. Council voted for a second time for the “Universal Paid Leave Amendment Act of 2016″ and passed it on a 9-4 vote. The legislation entitled nearly all D.C. workers to eight weeks of parental leave, six weeks to care for an ailing family member, and two weeks in the event of a personal illness (8-6-2). It is funded by a 0.62 percent payroll tax, which would raise $246 million a year, and a new government agency would administer the benefits. Put another way, if an employee needed to take leave, it would come out of a citywide pool, rather than directly from their employer.

Where did the mayor stand in all of this?

Mayor Muriel Bowser had quietly but still publicly opposed that model, which made the make-up of the council vote much more important. It takes 9 councilmembers—exactly the number that voted in favor of the the bill—to override a mayoral veto.

The big question was if Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh would stick with the eight other councilmembers should Bowser issue a veto. Cheh had expressed her own opposition to the model and introduced an alternative plan, an employer mandate, that fell shy by two votes. Ultimately, she cast her vote for the legislation that was on the table, saying that it was “ill considered” but still preferable over nothing.

Cheh then had a strong hand to play. She wanted to see paid leave happen, but preferred an alternative to the version that she’d reluctantly voted for—and the mayor was apparently ready to veto the bill if it could be sustained.

In the end, Chairman Phil Mendelson signaled his willingness to open the debate back up after the law passed. Realizing that her veto would be overridden, Bowser reluctantly allowed the bill to move forward without her signature—writing in a letter to Mendelson, she said she had “grave concerns” about the bill’s “very significant deficiencies.”

The Washington Post’s editorial board called her “feckless” for withholding the veto, while advocates cheered what appeared to be the end of the road.

Looks like it wasn’t, then.

Within two months, Cheh and UPLA’s most stalwart critic, Ward 2’s Jack Evans, introduced an alternative bill, and four other pieces of legislation followed from them and other councilmembers. It is those five alternatives that the D.C. Council will consider in today’s hearing.

Here’s what they’d do:

In short, none alters the essential benefit—8-6-2 weeks off—but they change who administers them and at what cost, and in some cases exempt smaller businesses.

Two return to the idea of an employer mandate—in which companies directly pay for and administer the benefits—while two offer up hybrid solutions in which large companies are under a mandate and small businesses take part in a citywide fund. The fifth changes the payroll tax to a fee, and divides it between employers and employees.

Given that an employer mandate already failed once, the hybrids seem to have a better shot.

Cheh and Evans’ Paid Leave Compensation Act of 2017 would lower the tax to 0.2 percent for employers with 50 or more employees and 0.4 for businesses with 5-49 employees. The larger companies would have to pay for and administer the benefits themselves, while the city would run an UPLA-like program for small businesses and very small businesses would be exempt.

Mendelson, meanwhile, introduced the Universal Paid Leave Pay Structure Amendment Act of 2017 with Cheh and At-large Councilmember Anita Bonds as co-sponsors. Companies with 100 or more employees would be required to offer the 8-6-2 leave, either directly (and pay a 0.15 percent payroll tax) or through a citywide program (at a tax rate of 0.54 percent). Smaller companies could choose whether or not to opt in. Another key difference from the current law is that the benefit program would be run by a contractor rather than a new District agency.

Evans’ Large Employer Paid-Leave Compensation Act of 2017 returns to the idea of an employer mandate structure. And Evans and Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray introduced the Paid Leave Compensation for Workers Amendment Act of 2017 which mandates that employers have paid-leave compensation insurance.

Cheh’s Universal Paid Leave Amendment Act of 2017, meanwhile, modifies UPLA’s payment structure from a tax to a fee, and divides the .62 percent figure between the employer (.2 percent) and the employee (0.42 percent)

What has changed between the legislation’s passage last year, and now?

For one thing, the make-up of the D.C. Council: of the four people who voted against the bill, two are no longer on the dais. Ward 7’s Yvette Alexander was replaced by Gray and the Ward 8 seat held by LaRuby May is now Trayon White’s. There’s also the proximity to the 2018 election. Mendelson is up for re-election; Anita Bonds, who had expressed some doubts but ultimately voted for the bill, is being challenged by a progressive activist; and Gray continues to “seriously consider” a run for mayor.

But the biggest change was the powerful chairman’s willingness to reimagine a bill that he’d already reworked and shepherded through the legislative process (Silverman and Grosso introduced the original, but Mendelson’s office took over and sorted through the finances and logistics).

How is this all playing out at the Wilson Building?

The mark of business community lobbyists is already imprinted in many of the proposals, while the coalition of left-leaning advocacy groups that pushed for the bill has ramped back up in opposition.

The left-leaning D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute issued a report that challenges the alternatives, saying they would undermine UPLA’s strengths. An economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post arguing against “repealing and replacing” the legislation.

Cheh takes issue with that terminology, calling it a rhetorical device. “This is a question of how we pay for it,” she tells DCist. “And if there are better ways to pay for it then we should pursue those.” Mendelson has made similar comments.

The chairman’s bill would have the program administered by a contractor and uses different tax rates, while one of Cheh’s proposals splits the cost between employers and employees.

Silverman, one of the architects and strongest proponents of UPLA, takes issue with both those alternatives. She questions the feasibility of the numbers that Mendelson is using, tracing them to a more fiscally conservative analyst outside the government, and argues that Cheh’s fee proposal would open the program up to litigation because of the Congressional prohibition on taxing non-residents.

“In my almost two decades or more of observing the Wilson Building, I’ve never seen a bill have this kind of circular trajectory,” Silverman says. “It’s unprecedented.”

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