WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Lawmakers in the District of Columbia voted Tuesday to impose a new tax on businesses to provide more than half a million workers with eight weeks of paid leave for the birth or adoption of a child, one of the nation’s most generous paid family leave programs.
Tuesday’s 11-to-2 vote by the liberal D.C. Council came despite concerns that the leave program would harm small businesses and cost some workers their jobs. Although three states guarantee paid family leave, all of them fund the benefit in part through employee contributions.
Advocates hailed the vote as a landmark, noting that the United States is alone among fully industrialized nations in failing to provide paid leave for new mothers and fathers. Supporters packed the council chamber, several with infants in strollers and baby carriers.
“Especially in the era of (Donald) Trump, I think that the only way to make progress on policies that are going to benefit working families is going to be at the state and local level,” said independent Council member Elissa Silverman, who has led the push for the bill. “What I’m really proud of is that the District is leading the way.”
While Silverman and the council’s progressive wing sought to distance themselves from the president-elect -- who has advocated a more limited form of paid family leave -- Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser traveled to New York on Tuesday to meet with him.
Bowser has not said whether she would sign the bill, but the 11-to-2 margin would be veto-proof if it holds when the council votes again in two weeks. Her allies on the council cited the program’s costs, its uncertain effect on businesses and the fact that more than 60 percent of those who would get the benefits live in Maryland and Virginia.
“I don’t care to make sure that the nanny in Potomac gets to stay with mom when they take care of the baby,” said Democratic Council member LaRuby May, citing a wealthy Maryland suburb to argue that the bill won’t help the city’s poorest ward, which she represents. Despite her reservations, May ultimately voted for the bill
The council will take another vote on the program in two weeks before sending it to the mayor’s desk.
If the bill becomes law, it would be sent to Congress for approval, like all laws in the District, and it could run into opposition with Republicans controlling both houses of Congress and the presidency. Congress can pass a resolution invalidating a District law, although that’s extremely rare. Congress more often blocks city policy in other ways, usually through amendments to spending bills.
The council initially proposed 16 weeks of paid family leave, funded by a 1 percent payroll tax on businesses. That was then cut to 11 weeks, to reduce the payroll tax to 0.62 percent. On Tuesday, the Council cut it further, to eight weeks for a new child or six weeks to care for a sick relative, while adding two weeks of leave for a worker’s own illness or injury. No state currently guarantees eight weeks of paid leave, although New York will when its program launches in 2018.
Workers would receive up to 90 percent of their salary, with the benefit capped at $1,000 per week. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said that structure ensures that the city’s lower-income workers stand to gain the most from the benefit.
The bill applies only to private employers because the city cannot tax the federal government and the local government already has a paid leave program. Supporters said funding the program through a payroll tax was the only option because the District is barred from taxing workers who don’t live in the city.