Washington, DC, workers to get 16 weeks paid leave under city hall plan that taxes businesses

FILE: Oct 6, 2015: A cashier bags groceries in Sacramento, Calif., where the governor this month signed an equal-pay-for-women measure.

FILE: Oct 6, 2015: A cashier bags groceries in Sacramento, Calif., where the governor this month signed an equal-pay-for-women measure.  (AP)

Washington, D.C., is poised to give workers in the city the most generous family-leave benefits in the country -- a plan that is backed by the Obama administration and would side-step Congress on such issues.

If approved, the legislation would give essentially every part- and full-time employee in the nation’s capital as much as 16 weeks of paid leave for such family matters as newborn care, illness or a sick relative.

The plan would be funded by an employer tax and was introduced last week with support from seven City Council members, enough to pass in the 13-person panel, in one of the most liberal cities in the country.

The Obama administration and other supporters argue lower-paid employees cannot afford to take off work for family matters and that 43 million U.S. private-sector workers have no employer-paid sick days.

“It’s important for women to take time at home when they have a child and for people to take time off when they have a sick family member," Dave Alpert, publisher of the news website Greater, Greater Washington, told on Thursday. "But a lot of people cannot afford to go without pay to do that. This bill would allow them to not have to make the all-or-nothing choice."

Supporters also argue the United States lags far behind Europe in proving such benefits and that expanding such care would make the District of Columbia more competitive in the labor market.  

However, businesses and other critics say the plan would over-burden some companies, particularly smaller ones and perhaps force them to leave.

“The D.C. Chamber of Commerce cannot support the legislation,” said group President Harry Wingo, suggesting, in part, a lack of adequate financial analysis. “This bill would be unprecedented and make the District of Columbia dangerously uncompetitive.”

The administration has thrown its full support behind the effort, making at least $1 million in Labor Department grant money available this year for cities and states.

In addition, agency Secretary Thomas Perez joined Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Obama, this spring on a cross-country promotional tour that also included blogs, web testimonials and an online Google Hangout chat.

“Across the country, state and local governments aren’t waiting for Congress to take action,” Perez said in April, after the “Lead to Leave” tour stopped in Providence, R.I. 

He also reminded Americans that the administration is committed to expanding access to paid leave by “supporting cities and states seeking to enact paid leave policies” and that Obama in his 2015 State of the Union address called on them to pass legislation to expand sick pay for workers.

Obama has made some headway in efforts to increase wages and narrow the country’s so-called income-inequality gap, in part by using an executive order to increase the minimum wage for federal contract employees.

However, his efforts to increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to at least $10.10 an hour have failed in the Republican-controlled Congress.

“This is of national interest, and the District is leading the way,” D.C. Councilwoman Elissa Silverman, an Independent, said Thursday about the family leave proposal, which she is co-sponsoring.

Silverman also pointed out that companies like Netflix and Facebook are offering similar deals to in part attract and keep employees, “not just out of the goodness of their hearts.”

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, has expressed support for the proposal but has also raised concerns about its potential fiscal impact on the city.

The D.C. plan, kick-started with at least $96,000 of the federal grant money, would create a fund by taxing city employers on a sliding scale.

The average annual cost would be roughly $385 per employee.

Employers would have to pay the equivalent of 1 percent of workers’ salaries of at least $150,000, or $1,500 a year.

Companies that pay the minimum wage ($10.50 an hour in the District) would pay about 0.6 percent, or about $131 annually for each employee.

Workers making up to $52,000 a year would be eligible for full wages or salary for a maximum 16 weeks. Those who make more would be eligible for the first $1,000 of their weekly income, plus a percentage of the remainder up to $3,000 a week.

Among the exceptions are the self-employed and people who travel into the District to work for a federal agency or office because the city cannot tax the U.S. government nor impose a commuter tax.

California, New Jersey and Rhode Island already have mandated policies on family leave, but the District’s offers more than twice as many paid weeks.