The United States remains one of the only countries in the world with no national paid family leave program—even with widespread public support and need. The numbers speak to this need: Approximately 14 percent of the civilian workforce, which consists mostly of high-skilled workers, have access to paid family leave. According to a report from New America’s Better Life Lab, paid family leave—of adequate duration—does everyone a lot of good. It leads to more income and gender equality, significant reductions in infant and maternal mortality, improved health for children and parents, as well as greater business productivity and economic growth. Yet despite these very obvious benefits, no one’s holding their breath for a federal program any time soon, since representatives have yet to reach a consensus on how such a program would look.
So how can we pave a path forward on the national level?
The answer: by looking at what’s been working closer to home. The District of Columbia is the latest to join a small group of states and localities that already offer paid family leave.
Over the past few years, District policymakers, activists, businesses, and concerned citizens have worked hard to enact the Universal Paid Family Leave Act (UPFLA), which goes into effect in 2020. The UPFLA provides all private-sector District employees with eight weeks of paid leave after the birth or adoption of a child. It also gives six weeks of paid leave to care for a family member and two weeks for self-care for employees with serious health conditions. The UPFLA benefit offers a 90-percent wage replacement rate for workers at or below 150 percent of the District’s minimum wage, and a 50-percent replacement rate for employees whose incomes fall above this threshold, capped at a maximum of $1,000 a week. The law’s enforcement and benefit costs are all financed via a .62-percent payroll tax levied on the city’s employers.
But while the UPFLA is the only program in the United States funded solely through employer contribution, it was actually influenced, in part, by California, which in 2002 became the first state to enact a paid family leave program. This isn’t to say that there isn’t room for California’s program to improve. All existing state programs, besides Washington D.C., have longer lengths of leave for lower reimbursement rates. Studies from California have shown that lower-income workers have a hard time taking advantage of the benefit because they can’t get by on less than their full wage. But a graduated wage-replacement benefit structure, like the District’s UPFLA, could fix this by making leave more affordable for low-income employees. With a bit of recalibration, California’s program, in place for over 10 years, could be a model for a national paid family leave program. One that boosts the economy by helping working families and businesses alike.
Many of these state-level programs were largely spearheaded by local activist groups. Indeed, if it weren’t for groups like the D.C. Paid Family Leave Campaign’s Coalition—which has garnered the support of some 100 nonprofit organizations and nearly as many local small businesses—it’s highly unlikely any such policy would be in place.
So what drives all of these people to get out there and push for these policies?
For one, every person, at some point, needs to take time off from work—whether it’s to care for oneself, one’s child, or one’s family member. District workers, for instance, have made their voices heard by sharing powerful stories and testimonies at public City Council hearings. Rebecca Ennen, Director of Communications at Jews United For Justice, believes the current law represents a program designed to meet the diverse needs of District workers and their families.
Of course, there has also been some disagreement. Take UPFLA. Despite its success in passing, it’s received its fair share of criticism, mostly from local business lobbyists. The debate was never centered on the principles behind paid family leave—everyone agrees the program is long overdue. Rather, the controversy has centered on how to fund and structure the benefits. Opponents of the bill say it would unfairly benefit non-residents and burden employers. In response, Council members have suggested changes that would propose employer mandates, adjustments to the payroll tax, and employer-employee contribution models.
Ilana Boivie, a senior policy analyst at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, warns against an employer mandate—and she’s hardly alone. A joint report on paid family leave from the American Enterprise Institute and Brookings points out how an employer mandate is more costly for business and may result in denying workers’ claims and discriminating against women of childbearing age. Regarding the contribution hybrid, Boivie told me, “Ultimately, whether it’s an employee or employer contribution, employees always end up paying for it.” Put differently, benefits packages do get paid for, in an indirect way, by the people who benefit.
Local activists, however, point to the dozens of local companies that support the policy to dispel misconceptions that it isn’t business friendly, relying on storytelling to help with their messaging. “I can think of several small business owners on our campaign who are dreaming of having this kind of benefit available so they can treat their staff better, or in some cases hire their first staff,” Ennen said.
Given the handful of alternative proposals to the current law, which are expected to be heard this fall, there’s much at stake to ensure District workers begin receiving their benefits by 2020. Families need these benefits sooner rather than later, and attempts to stall this program will ultimately hurt the District. And paid family leave is a widely-felt issue, impacting Americans all across the country, not just in the District. In the absence of a federal solution, Boivie argues, “let’s apply [this benefit] as broadly as possible by doing what we can within our jurisdiction here in D.C.” This incremental approach to paid family leave might, she hopes, be just what’s needed to finally nudge broader legislation forward at the national level.