The District of Columbia is on the brink of becoming the most generous place in the country to become new parents. If the Universal Paid Leave Act of 2015 becomes law, DC workers will be entitled to 16 weeks of paid leave for the birth of a child or other qualifying family or medical event.
Is it possible, finally, that politicians somewhere are prepared to change the dire state of parental leave in America?
According to the Department of Labor, only 12% of private-sector workers have access to paid parental leave and roughly a quarter of women return to work only 10 days after giving birth. A comprehensive study of family leave laws across the world by the International Labour Organization revealed that the United States (which is one of only two countries – the other being Papua New Guinea — that fails to guarantee any paid maternity leave), falls far below our peers when it comes to maternity leave benefits. Iceland offers the least paid maternity leave of any developed economy other than the United States, and it still guarantees new mothers 3 months of paid leave at 80% of their previous earnings. This disparity is truly shameful.
Despite the widely discussed benefits of paid family leave, skeptics are lining up in opposition to DC’s proposed bill. Critics say the bill goes too far, farther than any other legislation in the country “in a bad way.” The DC Chamber of Commerce calls the bill “dangerously uncompetitive” and suggests, without mentioning or rebutting the DOL-funded study that helped shape this proposal, that the bill is not based on reliable analysis. This rhetoric ignores studies that show paid parental leave can be beneficial to employers and has no negative effect on profitability. More fundamentally, it values profits margin over people. As a heartbreaking article in the New York Times brought into stark relief this week, women are put in impossible positions because of the lack of realistic options for maternity leave, sometimes with deadly consequences. Our failure to adopt responsible paid leave laws impacts the most vulnerable working mothers, low-wage workers, particularly hard as they are the least likely to have access to paid leave.
The DC Universal Paid Leave Act would help make work more human. If history is any guide, however, the biggest threat to the bill should it pass (which it appears likely to, given that it was introduced with the support of the majority of the Council) will come from Mayor Muriel Bowser. As a Councilwoman, Ms. Bowser opposed a ballot initiative to ban corporate contributions to political campaigns. In 2013, when the progressive Large Retailer Accountability Act – which would have required large retailers like Walmart to pay their employees a living wage – was passed, Councilwoman Bowser switched her vote to help uphold the veto of then-Mayor Gray. Mayor Bowser, who took significant campaign contributions from corporate interests during her election campaign, is already criticized for operating a pay-to-play scheme. It remains to be seen whether she will side with her corporate cronies or stand up for the people of Washington DC.
So, if you believe this is an important issue for the District and beyond, let your voice be heard! You can sign up to volunteer to help the DC Paid Family Leave Campaign or sign this petition to the DC City Council.