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D.C. bill grants paid leave city-wide

Photo: DC / AFSC

On December 6, the Washington, D.C. City Council passed a bill to create one of the only city-wide paid leave programs in the country. The bill, known as the Universal Paid Leave Amendment Act of 2016, would provide eight weeks of paid leave for workers to take care of new babies, six weeks for workers to take care of sick family members, and two weeks for personal medical emergencies. It would mandate the replacement of 90% of the salaries of workers who make up to 1.5 times the local minimum wage, and 50% of wages beyond that amount. This system was specifically intended to benefit low-income workers, who are least likely to get paid leave from their current employers but are most in need of a steady paycheck. The vote, which was the first of two, was a major preliminary victory for AFSC-DC and its partners in the D.C. Paid Leave Coalition, who have been advocating for the bill since before its introduction last October.

During the spring of 2015, students from AFSC-DC’s Human Rights Learning project at Dunbar High School got involved in the bill’s creation. The basic approach of the Human Rights Learning project involves using the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a framework to empower D.C. youths and community members to identify, examine, and address social justice issues in their communities. The students met with Joanna Blotner, the manager of the D.C. Paid Family Leave Campaign, several times to learn about the bill. They utilized their new understanding of human rights and their own personal experiences to write testimonies in favor of the bill, which Joanna collected for use in the campaign. They also organized a forum with representatives of Councilmembers David Grosso and Kenyan McDuffie to expand on the reasons that the bill would benefit their communities. Both councilmembers were co-sponsors of the original paid leave bill.

While most councilmembers were in favor of the bill, a few had serious objections to its provisions. Some, like Councilmember Jack Evans, worried about the program’s more than $238 million-per-year expense. (The money would come from a .62 percent increase in payroll taxes and be put into a communal pool that all business would share.) Others, including Councilmember LaRuby May, disapproved of the fact that the bill would cover the 64% of D.C. workers who live in Maryland and Virginia, moving much needed D.C. funds away from the District. In addition, outside groups have expressed the concern that the bill would add more regulations to small businesses in the District that would make it harder for them to survive and thrive.

These doubts about the bill caused Councilmember Evans to plan a motion to table and therefore kill it in the vote on December 6. The members of the D.C. Paid Leave Coalition, including AFSC-DC, worked hard to gain enough support from the other councilmembers to block the motion. Their many volunteers called, emailed and tweeted at the councilmembers, hoping that the massive show of popular support would be enough to influence them to vote for the bill. On behalf of AFSC-DC, I personally went to every single office in the council building on Pennsylvania Avenue to lobby for the bill. Their efforts continued even on the day of the vote, when they filled the council room with people wearing red, the campaign’s signature color. It was a diverse crowd; I saw pediatricians, business owners, and mothers with small children, all there to demonstrate how much they cared about getting the bill passed.

The work paid off when the council, after some debate, passed the paid leave bill 11-2. However, the bill is not completely secure yet. It will come to a second vote on December 20, and may have been changed or weakened in the meantime. Even if it passes that vote, it will go to Mayor Muriel Bowser, who has yet to publicly support it. AFSC-DC and its coalition partners will continue working to influence both the council and the mayor to make the correct decision and give D.C. workers the rights they deserve.

Alex Frazier
D.C. Peace & Economic Justice supporter

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